Inspector General's Report Notes Section 215 Requests Down Sharply Since 2013

from the but-that's-because-the-government-has-so-many-other-options dept

The Snowden Effect continues. In addition to actual oversight finally being applied to surveillance programs, the breadth and scope of some programs continues to be narrowed. Some of this narrowing has been forced on the NSA by legislation. But some of it also appears to be shame-related. It's no longer as acceptable to harvest vast amounts of data domestically, apparently.

Shane Harris at The Daily Beast notes that the latest Inspector General's report [PDF] details a sharp decline in Section 215 requests since Snowden's debut leak in June 2013.

Between 2012 and 2014, that court approved 561 so-called “business records orders,” but that number dropped from a nine-year high of 212 in 2012 to 170 in 2014, a nearly 20 percent decrease, according to a review by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

The number fell again in 2015 to 142 orders.

If Snowden hadn't dumped the documents, the program would have remained unaltered and, most likely, requests would have continued to rise. Thanks to a forced "conversation" about domestic surveillance, the resulting USA Freedom Act, along with the appointment of an amicus to make FISA court proceedings a tiny bit more adversarial, the government has scaled back its requests for phone metadata and other "third party" records. Having to target first and request second kind of has that effect.

The other effect leading to this decline is also related to the document leaks. The NSA -- and the FBI, which actually makes the requests for data -- found itself an outcast in its own country. Fewer requests are apparently being made because it's no longer socially acceptable to do so.

A Justice Department official attributed the diminishing use of the program to the “stigma attached” to it after Snowden’s leaks.

Then again, this might just be a nice thing to say. The FBI and NSA have several other surveillance programs operating with less oversight and restrictions than the Section 215 program. Although officials claimed the program was essential when defending it against legislative efforts, there was hardly any evidence presented to back this assertion up. Even the OIG report notes as much, stating that FBI agents "could not identify any major case developments" from its business records collections. Even so, the FBI continues to believe the bulk collection of metadata still serves as a valuable "building block" of its investigations, even if it's ultimately an extraneous one.

The report also points out that the FBI routinely uses other processes to obtain these same records -- ones that are faster and don't require a trip to the FISA court. In between redactions, the OIG notes that the FBI opens "parallel investigations" and utilizes things like grand jury subpoenas to compel the production of business records, rather than routing this through the FISA court. Then there's the FBI's use of National Security Letters, which has showed no sign of slowing even when faced with additional public scrutiny.

Shane Harris points out that the Section 702 program, which harvests vast amounts of internet/email communications and data, is far more useful and far more powerful. That's up for renewal next year and it will be interesting to see how James Clapper's office -- and the FBI -- handle any obstacles standing in the way of a no-questions-asked reapproval. The intelligence community seemed willing to let Section 215 take center stage during the push to pass the USA Freedom Act -- a surveillance state scapegoat released to draw attention away from the NSA's more intrusive bulk collections. But the intel community isn't going to be as easily persuaded to dial back a program that targets platforms that facilitate communications on a much wider scale.

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Filed Under: bulk collection, ed snowden, mass surveillance, nsa, section 215, surveillance


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  • identicon
    Whoever, 6 Oct 2016 @ 4:12pm

    I think that you have this back to front.

    The FBI, NSA, etc. took careful note of how the courts are blocking attempts to scrutinize warrants, and realized that they can simply bypass the courts with a national security letter.

    I doubt that the collection of records has actually reduced. Instead, scrutiny by the courts has reduced.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      me, 6 Oct 2016 @ 11:04pm

      Re: I think that you have this back to front.

      I disagree. I think they've simply stopped asking for approval. And I sure hope I'm wrong.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    David (profile), 6 Oct 2016 @ 4:28pm

    FBI/NSA social outcasts

    There was the piece regarding 911 calls dropping after police killing an unarmed man (black, their favorite target).

    This is on that same vein, nobody trusts the NSA or the FBI after Snowden let the cat out of the bag. The FBI has trouble doing the most basic police work (hint: which is *not* shooting unarmed citizens) and the NSA only does bizarro world investigations that produce reams of data with virtual needles hidden therein. Since the needles are in a different warehouse the connection to real investigations are suspect at best.

    The one thing that is true today as it always has been the basic reason for all of this behavior is to keep their level of funding from dropping. Pumping fears of *terrorists everywhere* keeps the cash flowing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Personanongrata, 6 Oct 2016 @ 5:18pm

    Deep Down the Rabbit Hole: Wooooooo, Pig! Sooie!

    Although officials claimed the program was essential when defending it against legislative efforts, there was hardly any evidence presented to back this assertion up. Even the OIG report notes as much, stating that FBI agents "could not identify any major case developments" from its business records collections.

    US government surveillance programs operate under the guise of uncovering terrorists/spies but in reality the surveillance programs are used for uncovering dirt to blackmail powerful compromised persons and as insider stock trading schemes used to enrich those in the know.


    Highlighted paragraph below was excerpted from a report found at washingtonsblog.com titled Exclusive: High-Level NSA Whistleblower Says Blackmail Is a Huge

    Being able to blackmail people is one major aspect of bulk/mass collection that has not been talked about. E.g., they could use this data to blackmail members of governments around the world. But, surely just to get them to do what they wanted them to do. Just like J. Edgar Hoover did. ~ William Binney, NSA senior technical director

    http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2014/07/nsa-blackmailing-world.html

    Highlighted paragraph below was excerpted from a report found at tomsdispatch.com and titled Tomgram: Alfred McCoy, It's About Blackmail, Not National Security

    Such digital surveillance has tremendous potential for scandal, as anyone who remembers New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s forced resignation in 2008 after routine phone taps revealed his use of escort services; or, to take another obvious example, the ouster of France’s budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac in 2013 following wire taps that exposed his secret Swiss bank account. As always, the source of political scandal remains sex or money, both of which the NSA can track with remarkable ease.

    http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175795/tomgram%3A_alfred_mccoy,_it%27s_about_blackmail,_not_nat ional_security

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Oct 2016 @ 6:02pm

    Soon the number will be 1

    It will just be a blanket order for all data from everyone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Follow the violence, 6 Oct 2016 @ 9:53pm

    and you will undrstand how things really work.

    There is no point at which the state will ever be no lying, it does nothing for people that get to retire 3 times and mostly do nothing.

    Everyone should understand that the purpose of the state is violence that is why they have a monopoly on it, so it's no surprise that they wage class war all the time, by murdering black people or bombing people that resist them in any way.

    follow the violence, after the second great depression all resistance as not only marginalized but actively suppressed with violence, only the least violent attacks where reported.

    when trump wins or loses America is going to explode it cannot survive another 8 years of neo-libral like another clinton

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2016 @ 7:11am

    Obama issued a new "double secret" executive order

    If you change the executive order number, the press and the oversight (what an ironic term!) committees won't know what questions to ask.

    It took years for Ron Wyden to be able to ask the right question, to which the answer was "not wittingly".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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