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Warrantless spying on Americans more than doubled since 2013: oversight report

According to a new report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, US spy agencies now access the freely collected communications of Americans more than twice as frequently as just two years ago, without a warrant or any real oversight save the report itself. And while the the ever-growing database of searchable communications is supposed to be filled with national security-relevant material only, searches of that database can be done to investigate regular domestic crimes — or just about anything else.

The startling new figures arise from the NSA’s mandate in Section 702 of the Foreign Surveillance Act, which says that it may target the communications of non-US persons outside of the US. The problem is the so-called “incidental” collection of Americans’ communications, which puts them in the NSA’s vast “702 database.” Once a US person’s personal information is in the database, it’s as searchable as anything else that was collected legitimately. Its the use of search terms specific to US persons that has more than doubled.

However, searches for metadata have also increased dramatically, associating a particular communication with a sender, receiver, and more.

All this leads to the question of just how much of an incentive there is in the security world to actually fix the collection algorithms, when they seem to be collecting information that is of such ballooning interest. This report shows that right now, the NSA and others in the security world are benefiting from their oft-proclaimed inability to filter domestic targets out of their data. Perhaps the body creating and maintaining these tools should be separate from the body that most directly benefits from their primitive level of sophistication.

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It’s worth pointing out that, if you’re going to go after foreign terrorists with ambitions to attack the US, your investigations will almost certainly lead within US borders at some point. When that happens, the process of acquiring the necessary warrants to continue investigating should be efficient and available, with a bias toward protecting national security — putting a piece of paperwork and judicial oversight between investigators and the domestic leg of each case simply is not a very big or debilitating ask. The spy world has essentially devolved to arguing, “Whoops! We slipped and read your email!”

The Section 702 mandate applies to any non-US person outside the US “who possesses, or who is likely to communicate or receive, foreign intelligence information.” Do you know anyone who might be “likely” to receive foreign intelligence information? Know someone working as an intern at the Grecian finance ministry? Anyone you know abroad have a direct relative who’s active in national politics? Know a guy in China who once worked in a Huawei factory?

This alarming uptick in use shows that the real worry isn’t how these powers are being used now, but how they will be used in the future. If there’s one thing that’s certain about the security world, it’s that if you give them an inch, they take a mile — and play all the way to the edge of it.

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