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The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted as many as 3.4 million searches on Americans' electronic data last year without a warrant, U.S. intelligence officials said Friday, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The data was disclosed as a part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence's Annual Statistical Transparency Report. Yet while the report is regularly issued every year, the search disclosure is new.
In fact, it marks the first time that a U.S. intelligence agency has published the number of times the FBI has accessed Americans' data using Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a program passed into law in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to enable the U.S. to spy on non-Americans overseas.
The National Security Agency uses Section 702 to collect intelligence from international correspondence that it thinks may be connected to a security risk, however, sometimes Americans' data gets picked up in the process. From there the FBI taps into the data to look at U.S. information.
In its report, the Journal noted the revelation will very likely stoke "longstanding concerns in Congress about government surveillance and privacy."
It comes at a pertinent time, as well. Section 702 is up for renewal at the end of the year, and privacy advocates will be eager to highlight the 3.4 million searches figure in an effort to seek its termination.
Dustin Volz, a Washington D.C.-based reporter who covers cybersecurity and intelligence, was careful to note in the article that intelligence officials are not suggesting the searches were in any way improper or illegal, no matter how nefarious the practice may sound.
Rather, officials assert that the FBI's ability to conduct searches using the program remains an extremely important part of its mission to protect the country from threats to its national security.
Futhermore, Biden administration officials told the Wall Street Journal that the total number of searches is likely far lower than 3.4 million due to remarkable difficulties in counting and sorting the data. For example, each time an individual’s name, phone number, email address, or social security number is queried, it counts as one search.
Still, officials have acknowledged that the massive number published in the report is likely to raise alarms.
"[It] is certainly a large number," a senior FBI official reportedly said Friday in a press release about the report. "I am not going to pretend that it isn’t."
A battle over whether or not to renew the program is all but certain.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), a staunch privacy advocate, told the Journal, "For anyone outside the U.S. government, the astronomical number of FBI searches of Americans’ communications is either highly alarming or entirely meaningless."
"Somewhere in all that over-counting are real numbers of FBI searches, for content and for noncontent — numbers that Congress and the American people need before Section 702 is reauthorized," he added.
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