US intelligence agencies have violated federal surveillance laws hundreds of times over the past decade, a painstaking analysis of declassified reviews, opinions, and documents has shown.
New research by the Open Tech Institute has found over 200 violations by the NSA and the FBI since the introduction of a controversial surveillance provision designed to collect foreign intelligence. Violations include over-collecting data, violating attorney-client privilege, and conducting unlawful surveillance of Americans, who are generally protected from spying under the constitution.
The research is the first comprehensive, compiled list of violations of the provision, known as section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which is designed to collect data on foreign persons overseas, but also incidentally collects a large amount of data on Americans. The statute is the legal basis for the PRISM program and the tapping of global undersea fiber optic cables.
While the research shows the violations are inadvertent, it reveals a pattern of systematic problems about the scale of the US government’s sprawling and complex surveillance program, said the project’s lead.
“The real threat to privacy isn’t that an individual person is engaging in intentional wrongdoing, it’s that lots of people are accidentally breaking the rules, or that the surveillance and data retention systems aren’t built to follow the rules in the first place,” Robyn Greene, policy counsel and government affairs lead at the Open Technology Institute, told ZDNet.
According to the data, the majority of violations occurred in 2014 and 2015, with most relating to running unlawful searches of data and improperly targeting a person or account for surveillance.
That has impacted the privacy of “countless” Americans, she said.
Greene notes that the violations are not willful. “They are inadvertent or unintentional,” she said. “However, they are of the most concern because they represent systemic problems that result from the scope and complexity of the Section 702 surveillance program.”
“As such, and as many of the reports acknowledge, the impact of these unintentional violations on Americans’ privacy can be significant and prolonged,” she said.
One of the most striking points to come out of the research, Greene noted, was how long it took for the government to report violations to the FISA Court, which authorizes and oversees the government’s surveillance powers.