National Security Surveillance on U.S. Soil Dropped Again in 2021, Report Says


There were about 232,000 targets of so-called 702 surveillance in 2021, the report said — the largest such number yet in the report’s history. That resumed a steady climb in such targets, which had dipped slightly, to about 203,000, in 2020 — the first year of the pandemic — from the previous high of about 205,000 in 2019.

One of the debates that flared up around the Snowden leaks was the issue of communications involving Americans that the government collects without a warrant as an incidental byproduct of its foreign intelligence surveillance. For example, if a foreigner abroad who is targeted by the warrantless surveillance program communicates with an American, the government will collect that American’s emails to and from the foreign target.

This year, for the first time, the report included some information about a question that members of Congress have long asked: how often the F.B.I. has searched its 702 surveillance repository using the identifiers of Americans, like their names, phone numbers and addresses.

The F.B.I. has long said its systems were not set up to provide an accurate count, but this year’s report provided a stab at it. Still, the figure’s significance was murky.

Specifically, the report said that F.B.I. analysts had queried the repository using an American’s identifier fewer than about 3.4 million times from December 2020 to November 2021. That is up from fewer than about 1.3 million during the previous 12-month period.

The meaning of those numbers is clouded, however, because of how the F.B.I. compiled them. A batch query that used 100 identifiers as search terms, only one of which was that of an American, would count 100 times. A search for information about a single American target, using 10 email addresses and phone numbers associated with that target, would count 10 times. Repeating such a query would make all those numbers count anew.

In a statement, one of the lawmakers who has long pushed the F.B.I. to count and disclose its searches for Americans’ information, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, called the “astronomical number” that the F.B.I. came up with “either highly alarming or entirely meaningless.”

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