FBI made millions of queries for Americans’ data in 2021, report says

The agency made around 3.4 million searches for data such as names, social security numbers, passport numbers, phone numbers and email addresses between December 2020 and November 2021 File Photo courtesy U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation

April 29 (UPI) — The FBI made as many as 3.4 million queries for data relating to U.S. citizens in 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in its annual report Friday.

The agency made around 3,394,053 searches for data such as names, Social Security numbers, passport numbers, phone numbers and email addresses between December 2020 and November 2021, according to the ODNI report.

Most of the searches, approximately 1.9 million of them, were made for terms related to an investigation into “attempts to compromise U.S. critical infrastructure by foreign cyberactors” last year.

A senior official told reporters when announcing the report that authorities had “identified a pool of potential victims” including U.S. citizens.

“We ran that against our 702 collection in order to identify who, in particular, Russia was actually targeting,” the senior official said.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows the FBI to access data previously collected by the National Security Agency.

It was not immediately clear if the threat came from criminal groups or the Russian government. Last year, a ransomware gang with ties to Russia known as REvil made a large cyberattack on food processing company JBS and software provider Kasaya. Those attacks came after DarkSide, another hacking group tied to Russia, was linked to the Colonial Pipeline attack.

Section 702, which was added under the FISA Amendments Act in 2008, is required to be renewed by the U.S. Congress every few years and was last renewed in 2018. It is set to expire in 2023. However, the ODNI report could be a cause of concern for lawmakers.

The number of FBI searches of the data, which is also used by agencies such as the NSA and CIA, was revealed for the first time as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance expanded reporting requirements to include such data in November 2020.

ODNI noted in the report that the FBI’s use of Section 702 data is being reported separately from the other agencies because its standards for access to the data are “fundamentally different from that of the other agencies.”

The FBI has a “broader query authority” that allows it to conduct searches of the Section 702 data that are both “reasonably likely to return foreign intelligence information” and are “reasonably likely to return evidence of a crime” because of its “dual law enforcement and intelligence mission.”

Federal officials acknowledged during the press conference that the number of searches from the FBI is “certainly a large number,” but said that there were explanations for why it seems high.

“The frequency with which FBI uses U.S. person query terms is greater than other agencies. The difference in frequency is largely attributable to FBI’s domestic-focused mission versus the other agencies’ foreign-focused missions,” the report reads.

“FBI queries are often initiated through tips and leads relating to domestic matters, provided by the public and domestic partners, meaning they are more likely to involve U.S. persons.”

The report also noted that the FBI only has the capability to count the total number of queries, which may include duplicate searches. Additionally, the report noted that the searches do not reflect the number of citizens whose data was searched.

“For example, a single U.S. person might be associated with 10 unique query terms including name, social security number, passport number, phone number, multiple email addresses,” the report reads. “These 10 identifiers could be run 10 different times throughout the reporting period, resulting in 100 queries associated with a single individual.”

Query terms may also be associated with a U.S. company rather than a specific U.S. person. And, if just one search term among hundreds applies to a U.S. citizen, then all of them are counted even if some of the search terms are not associated with an American citizen.

“This system design ensures that all potential U.S. person query terms are captured, but results in an over counting of the number of U.S. person queries actually conducted by the FBI,” the report reads.

“For this reason, the total number of FBI U.S. person queries is referred to as ‘fewer than’ the total number of queries labeled as U.S. person queries.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called on the FBI to explain the data and “to stop providing essentially meaningless statistics to the American people” in a statement.

“For anyone outside the U.S. government, the astronomical number of FBI searches of Americans’ communications is either highly alarming or entirely meaningless,” Wyden said.

“Somewhere in all that over-counting are real numbers of FBI searches, for content and for non-content — numbers that Congress and the American people need before Section 702 is reauthorized.”

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