According to records made public on Friday, the FBI routinely made use of a limited database of Americans' private communications to check for the identities of criminals and participants in rallies for Black Lives Matter and the 2021 Capitol assassination.
According to released rulings from the covert Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court, the Federal Bureau of Investigation accessed the database 278,000 times in the last several years, sometimes without cause.
Private emails, texts, and other communications that the National Security Agency claims to collect while snooping on foreign nationals are included in the database.
Although the FBI is only permitted to use the NSA database when looking into a foreign intelligence matter, court judgments revealed that they often exploited it for domestic investigations.
Agents conducted arbitrary searches in connection with domestic drug and gang investigations, the 2020 demonstration over the police killing of African American George Floyd, and the January 6, 2021 assault by Donald Trump supporters on the US Capitol.
In one instance, a database search on 19,000 contributors to a congressional election campaign was conducted by an agent.
According to the intelligence court, none of the instances included any domestic or international crime that would have justified the FBI accessing the database.
The materials were made public as Congress discussed whether to extend Section 702, a provision allowing the NSA access to accounts housed by US servers in order to monitor foreign intelligence targets.
It requires reform, according to a number of politicians, in order to properly secure Americans' personal information.
Intelligence agencies are concerned that this would limit their operations, while Democrats and legal rights experts said the disclosures demonstrated the need for changes.
According to Patrick Toomey of the American Civil Liberties Union, “the government has dramatically increased its spying under Section 702 in ways never contemplated by Congress, but it's refusing to tell Americans what it's doing.”
The intelligence court records, according to Senator Ron Wyden, a longstanding opponent of Section 702, indicated “shocking abuses” of the statute.
“If Section 702 is to be reauthorized, there must be statutory reforms to ensure that the checks and balances are in place to put an end to these abuses,” stated Wyden.
When the US intelligence community discovered it needed to access the email and phone accounts of foreign intelligence targets that were housed on US-based systems, the problem first emerged almost two decades ago.
Since it is illegal for the NSA and the CIA to eavesdrop on Americans or foreigners within the country, Congress established Section 702 in 2008 to provide the NSA access to those US-hosted accounts.
As part of this process, the NSA also gathers emails and phone communications from US citizens and foreign residents who contact with or merely reference an NSA target.