FISA court finds NSA violated search restrictions, spied on Americans

FISA court finds NSA violated search restrictions, spied on Americans
Intelligence agencies under former President Barack Obama routinely violated privacy rights, conducted illegal searches and gathered information on US citizens, according to a FISA court that called their conduct “a very serious Fourth Amendment issue.”

Earlier this month, the Director of National Intelligence released a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that found illegal searches of American citizens conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) may have violated privacy rights. The court order came from a hearing on October 26, just before former President Barack Obama left office.

Under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the intelligence community is authorized to target the communications of non-citizens located outside the US for foreign intelligence purposes. However, the agency is supposed to be kept in check by multiple layers of oversight.

In 2011, the court placed further restricted on the NSA by instating minimization procedures that prohibit the agency from targeting American citizens in their searches.

The recent court order revealed that NSA analysts had been conducting searches of American citizens that violate the minimization procedures "with much greater frequency than had previously been disclosed to the Court.”

In their 2016 hearing, the court said the NSA’s violations amounted to “a very serious Fourth Amendment issue.”

The court found “significant” changes in the way the NSA intercepted communications, especially pertaining to their “upstream collection” – data the agency gathers from internet traffic as it flows through major telecommunications hubs. The NSA searches that traffic for "selectors," such as a specific email addresses or keywords. 

Along with other data, the NSA also gathered so-called “Multiple Communication Transactions” (MCT), which consists of several communications bundled together. MCTs were at the heart of the NSA’s illegal collection from 2008 to 2011.

The MCTs began to collect communications that were to, from or even contained a reference to a selector, known as "about" information.

“As a result, upstream collection could acquire an entire MCT for which the active user was a non-target and that mostly pertained to non-targets, merely because a single discrete communication within the MCT was from or contained a reference to a tasked selector,” the court said.

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) told Fox News that the NSA’s searches of “about” information are really a "backdoor way to sort of get at Americans' privacy without using a warrant."

READ MORE: NSA collected over 151mn phone records in 2016 despite surveillance law changes

Just after the court order was released, the NSA issued a statement that claimed the agency would stop collecting communications that contained references to a foreign intelligence selector.

“NSA will no longer collect certain internet communications that merely mention a foreign intelligence target,” the agency said in a statement. “Instead, NSA will limit such collection to internet communications that are sent directly to or from a foreign target.

The NSA also promised it would “delete the vast majority of its upstream internet data to further protect the privacy of US person communications.”