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 government report.
The warrantless searches, legal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, were up sharply from approximately 1.32 million reported in 2020, according to the report, published Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Almost all of the increase can be traced to one Russian cyberthreat to critical U.S. infrastructure in 2021. The FBI’s response to the threat accounted for approximately 1.9 million searches.
The bureau also changed how it counted the search queries, making it unclear whether the increase in searches necessarily means more surveillance of Americans.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows investigators to use names, phone numbers and email addresses to filter through information that 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.
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“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. 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 FBI made the changes in advance of the increased searches. 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 to prompt verification that the employee had an attorney’s approval before conducting a search using 100 or more terms.
The FBI said the Justice Department reviewed the queries of foreign information and deemed them compliant with the government’s rules.
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The internal review of the FBI’s domestic operations, however, previously showed numerous rules violations. Agents violated FBI rules at least 747 times in 18 months while conducting sensitive investigations involving politicians, candidates, religious groups, news 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.