NSA says warrantless searches of Americans’ data rose in 2018

The intelligence community’s annual transparency report revealed a spike in the number of warrantless searches of Americans’ data in 2018.

The data, published Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), revealed a 28 percent rise in the number of targeted search terms used to query massive databases of collected Americans’ communications.

Some 9,637 warrantless search queries of the contents of Americans’ calls, text messages, emails and other communications were conducted by the NSA during 2018, up from 7,512 searches on the year prior, the report said.

The figures also don’t take into account queries made by the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration, which also has access to the database, nor do they say exactly how many Americans had their information collected.

The NSA conducts these searches under its so-called Section 702 powers, reauthorized in 2018 despite heated opposition by a bipartisan group of pro-privacy senators. These powers allow the NSA to collect intelligence on foreigners living overseas by tapping into the phone networks and undersea cables owned by U.S. phone companies. The powers also allow the government to obtain data in secret from U.S. tech companies. But the massive data collection effort also inadvertently vacuums up Americans’ data, who are typically protected from unwarranted searches under the Fourth Amendment.

The report also noted a 27 percent increase in the number of foreigners whose communications were targeted by the NSA during the year. In total, an estimated 164,770 foreign individuals or groups were targeted with search terms used by the NSA to monitor their communications, up from 129,080 on the year prior.

It’s the largest year-over-year leap in foreign surveillance to date.

The report also said the NSA collected at most 434.2 million phone records on Americans, down from 534.3 million records on the year earlier. The government said the figures likely had duplicates.

The phone records collection program was the first classified NSA program disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which revealed a secret court order compelling Verizon — which owns TechCrunch — to turn over daily phone records on millions of Americans. The program was later curtailed following the introduction of the Freedom Act.

Earlier this month, the NSA reportedly asked the White House to end the program altogether, citing legal troubles.

Despite the apparent rollback of the program, NSA still reported 164,770 queries of Americans’ phone records, more than a five-fold increase on the year earlier.

Last week, the Trump administration revealed it had been denied 30 surveillance applications by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a specialist closed-door court that grants the government authority to spy inside the U.S., where surveillance is typically prohibited.

Since figures were made available in 2015 following the Edward Snowden disclosures, the number of denials has trended upwards.

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