National Review | by Arjun Singh | April 29, 2022
The FBI conducted as many as 3.4 million searches of data in the U.S. without a warrant over the year 2021, according to a new government report.
The Annual Statistical Transparency Report, was published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Thursday and focuses on the intelligence community’s use of national security authorities for surveillance under U.S. law.
The information was previously gathered by the National Security Agency, the U.S. military’s signals intelligence agency, but was transferred to the civilian-led FBI per the U.S.A. FREEDOM Act, passed in 2015.
The figure represented a 260 percent increase from the previous coverage year, 2020, where the FBI had conducted around 1.3 million searches.
According to analysis by the Wall Street Journal, more than half the data searches – 1.9 million – pertained to the FBI’s investigations of attempts by Russian hackers to infiltrate and sabotage critical U.S. infrastructure. This included the investigation of the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline, a 5,500-mile pipeline from Texas to New York, which was shut down by Russian hacking group “DarkSide” in exchange for ransom in May of 2021.
The shutdown briefly prompted emergency fuel rationing measures by the Department of Energy across the northeastern United States.
Though a version of the same report has been published every year since 2014, this marks the first time that an accounting of the number of data acquisitions by the FBI has been undertaken. At a press briefing in Washington on Friday, an FBI official admitted that “3.4 million is certainly a large number. I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t.”
However, other officials have admitted that the data pertaining to U.S. citizens is likely lower than this figure, which also covers all data originating in the U.S. searched by the FBI under law.
The report did not suggest that any of the searches – including those pertaining to U.S. citizens – was illegal. Authority for the FBI’s activity was cited as drawing from Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That law, passed in 1978 during the Cold War, authorizes collection of private data by “non-U.S. persons,” though their communications with U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents may be accessed, as well.
Section 702 has come under withering criticism from privacy advocates, who claim it allows the federal government to spy on Americans with little oversight and due process.
Former president Donald Trump, who last signed a bill reauthorizing the law in 2018, had openly questioned its use to allegedly spy on his presidential campaign, which are part of the focus of Special Counsel John Durham’s ongoing investigation. That year, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – created by the 1978 Act to authorize warrants – had rebuked the FBI for its handling of information gathered under the statute.