The threat of cyberattack from Russia fueled more than half of the FBI’s 3.39 million warrantless searches of Americans’ data last year, according to a new government report.
The warrantless searches, legal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, were up sharply from the approximately 1.32 million reported in 2020, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence report.
Almost all of the increase can be traced to one cyber threat to U.S. critical infrastructure from Russia in 2021 that accounted for approximately 1.9 million searches.
The bureau also made changes to how it counted the search queries last year, making it unclear whether the increase in searches necessarily means more surveillance of Americans.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows investigators to use names, phone numbers and email addresses to filter through information the U.S. government already collects.
Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said he is concerned that the uptick in searches is either a major problem or is incomprehensible.
“For anyone outside the U.S. government, the astronomical number of FBI searches of Americans’ communications is either highly alarming or entirely meaningless,” Mr. Wyden said in a statement. “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.”
Whether the spike in searches means more monitoring of Americans is unclear, as the FBI said the data reflects the number of queries and not the number of investigations or the number of people investigated.
“In order to safeguard the privacy and civil liberties of the public we are sworn to protect, we have made changes to our systems and processes, and will not hesitate to make additional updates as necessary, to ensure we protect all Americans’ privacy and civil liberties while fulfilling our dual law enforcement and intelligence mission each and every day,” a senior FBI official said in a statement.
The changes made by the FBI occurred in advance of the increased searches reflected in the intelligence community report published Friday. The FBI allows agents and analysts to query FISA information and non-FISA information simultaneously.
Last year, the FBI changed the system to require personnel to opt-in to search FISA information and changed the system to prompt employees to verify they had an attorney’s approval prior to conducting a search using 100 or more terms.
According to the FBI, the queries of foreign information last year were reviewed by the Justice Department and deemed compliant with the government’s rules.
The FBI’s internal review of its domestic operations, however, has previously shown numerous rules violations. For example, agents violated FBI rules at least 747 times in 18 months while conducting sensitive investigations involving politicians, candidates, religious groups, the media and others, according to a 2019 FBI audit first reported by The Washington Times.
The FBI has said it made changes to its agents’ training for those domestic investigations and called the errors unacceptable.