For years critics have claimed that the US’ Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is a pushover. It’s allegedly s reluctant to reject spying orders that it’s little more than a speed bump for the FBI and NSA. That reputation isn’t about to change anytime soon.
Reuters possesses a memo obtained from the Justice Department showing that FISC didn’t reject any of the 1457 surveillance order requests it received in 2015, even in part. That’s no different than in 2014, but it suggests that the court isn’t any less forgiving in an era of tighter government controls.
Its at least willing to tweak more of those requests. FISC changed 80 surveillance applications in 2015, or four times as many as it did in 2014. It’s at least giving serious thought to those demands before approving them. The problem is that the courts secretive nature makes it impossible to verify that behavior. How do you know that the approved requests genuinely respect privacy and minimize overreach? You don’t. You still have to trust that court officials aren’t just giving the FBI a free pass.
The memo also sheds some light on the FBI’s fondness for National Security Letters. The bureau sent 48,642 request letters to companies last year, most of which were to collect information on non Americans. It also asked for Americans information 9,418 times, and demanded basic subscriber data 7,361 times. The ratio’s aren’t shocking, but its difficult to gauge the potential for abuse when secrecy orders prevent companies from saying anything about the nature of the requests.
The FBI in total issued 48,642 National Security Letters. These are like a subpoena that compels a company to turn over data on national security grounds without informing the subject of the letter.
Founded in 1978, the FISA Court was tasked wit processing government requests for surveillance against foreign targets. It was this court that approved a number f controversial programs, like PRISM, and the phone records collection program, which were leaked by Edward Snowden to journalists.
The memo also stated that the majority of the requests made by the FBI were seeking data on foreigners, but almost one in five were requests for data on Americans. Only in recent years has there been a push back against the governments one sided authority.
Last year, the court appointed five lawyers and attorneys with national security clearance, including Mark Zwillinger, a lawyer who’s represented both Apple ad Yahoo at the court to act as pushback against the governments requests. The move was a provisions in the Freedom Act, which passed in mid 2015, as an intelligence community reform effort in the wake of the Snowden revelations.