NSA collected 151 million records of Americans' calls, allowed 1,934 to be 'unmasked'

The NSA collected 151 million records of Americans' calls, according to a new transparency report, and allowed 1,934 Americans to be 'unmasked' upon requests of government officials.

NSA surveillance
Credit: KAZ Vorpal

Despite the USA Freedom Act of 2015, the NSA collected 151 million records of Americans’ phone calls last year, even though it had obtained warrants from the FISA court to spy on only 42 people suspected of having ties to terrorism. The NSA also complied with requests from government officials to reveal the identities of 1,934 U.S. persons ensnared in the foreign surveillance.

The annual report, issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, provides the first assessment of the effectiveness of the 2015 USA Freedom Act which was meant to limit dragnet surveillance of millions of Americans’ phone records. In 2016, 151,230,968 was the total estimated number of Americans’ call details records, meaning metadata about calls such as the number of the caller and recipient as well as the duration and time of the call, which the NSA received from providers and then stored in NSA repositories.

We are perhaps supposed to feel better by knowing that the 151 million records of Americans gobbled up last year included multiple calls made from or to the same phone numbers. The real count of how many Americans phone records were collected minus the duplication issue is reportedly smaller, but the report doesn’t provide that number.

The report comes on the heels of the NSA announcement that it will stop sifting through emails or other internet communications of people who are not targets of surveillance if an actual target is mentioned in the communications. The NSA said, “Instead, this surveillance will now be limited to only those communications that are directly ‘to’ or ‘from’ a foreign intelligence target.”

The new transparency report reveals that the total number of probable cause court orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court was 1,559 in 2016. 1,687 is cited as the “good faith estimate” of the number of targets of those orders. Are we supposed to be impressed that the number of targets was eight less than in 2015? It’s still 125 more targets than in 2014.

Information under FISA Title VII Sections 703 and 704 explains that a target doesn’t necessarily mean one person; it could also mean a “group, entity composed of multiple individuals or foreign power that uses the selector such as a telephone number or email address.”

Of the estimated 1,687 FISA “probable cause” targets, 19.9 percent, or an estimated 336 targets, were Americans. Keep in mind that we established one target could be multiple people or groups.

Congress is deciding whether or not to reauthorize FISA Section 702 which gives the NSA the thumbs up to collect information on Americans as long as they are communicating with a foreign target. The law is set to expire at the end of this year. In 2016, there were 106,469 targets of Section 702 orders; there were 94,368 in 2015.

Once in 2016, according to the report, the FBI received and reviewed information that was acquired under NSA surveillance about an American. The report calls the data “Section 702-acquired information that the FBI identified as concerning a U.S. person in response to a query that was designed to return evidence of a crime unrelated to foreign intelligence.”

NSA allowed almost 2,000 Americans to be unmasked

Amid President Trump’s continued accusations of warrantless surveillance ordered by former President Obama, accusations that former National Security Advisor Susan Rice sought to learn the identities of Trump campaign officials before the 2016 election, the report revealed that the NSA complied with requests from government officials to reveal the identities of 1,934 U.S. persons ensnared in foreign surveillance.

While the transparency report does give the number of Americans “unmasked” upon request last year, for the redactions meant to protect privacy to be removed, it doesn’t give details about who asked for the names or why.

Related:
Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
Shop Tech Products at Amazon