May 7, 2014 | By Nadia Kayyali
The most recent disclosure of classified NSA documents revealed that the British spy agency GCHQ sought unfettered access to NSA data collected under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Not only does this reveal that the two agencies have a far closer relationship than GCHQ would like to publicly admit, it also serves as a reminder that surveillance under Section 702 is a real problem that has barely been discussed, much less addressed, by Congress or the President.
In fact, the “manager’s amendment” to the USA FREEDOM Act, which passed unanimously out of the House Judiciary Committee, has weakened the minimal changes to Section 702 that USA FREEDOM originally offered. Although Representative Zoe Lofgren—who clearly understands the import of Section 702—offered several very good amendments that would have addressed these gaps, her amendments were all voted down. There’s still a chance though—as this bill moves through Congress it can be strengthened by amendments from the floor.
Section 702 has been used by the NSA to justify mass collection of phone calls and emails by collecting huge quantities of data directly from the physical infrastructure of communications providers. Here’s what you should know about the provision and why it needs to be addressed by Congress and the President:
- Most of the discussion around the NSA has focused on the phone records surveillance program. Unlike that program, collection done under Section 702 captures content of communications. This could include content in emails, instant messages, Facebook messages, web browsing history, and more.
- Even though it’s ostensibly used for foreign targets, Section 702 surveillance sweeps up the communications of Americans. The NSA has a twisted, and incredibly permissive, interpretation of targeting that includes communications about a target, even if the communicating parties are completely innocent. As John Oliver put it in his interview with former NSA General Keith Alexander: “No, the target is not the American people, but it seems that too often you miss the target and hit the person next to them going, ‘Whoa, him!'”
- The NSA has confirmed that it is searching Section 702 data to access American’s communications without a warrant, in what is being called the “back door search loophole.” In response to questions from Senator Ron Wyden, former NSA director General Keith Alexander admitted that the NSA specifically searches Section 702 data using “U.S. person identifiers,” for example email addresses associated with someone in the U.S.
- The NSA has used Section 702 to justify programs in which the NSA can siphon off large portions of Internet traffic directly from the Internet backbone. These programs exploit the structure of the Internet, in which a significant amount of traffic from around the world flows through servers in the United States. In fact, through Section 702, the NSA has access to information stored by major Internet companies like Facebook and Google.
- Section 702 is likely used for computer security operations. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted Section 702’s use to obtain communications “regarding potential cyber threats” and to prevent “hostile cyber activities.” Richard Ledgett, Deputy Director of NSA, noted the use of intelligence authorities to mitigate cyber attacks.
- The FISA Court has little opportunity to review Section 702 collection. The court approves procedures for 702 collection for up to a year. This is not approval of specific targets, however; “court review [is] limited to ‘procedures’ for targeting and minimization rather than the actual seizure and searches.” This lack of judicial oversight is far beyond the parameters of criminal justice.
- Not only does the FISA Court provide little oversight, Congress is largely in the dark about Section 702 collection as well. NSA spying defenders say that Congress has been briefed on these programs. But other members of Congress have repeatedly noted that it is incredibly difficult to get answers from the intelligence community, and that attending classified hearings means being unable to share any information obtained at such hearings. What’s more, as Senator Barbara Mikulski stated: “‘Fully briefed’ doesn’t mean that we know what’s going on.” Without a full picture of Section 702 surveillance, Congress simply cannot provide oversight.