The most recent disclosure of classified NSA documents revealed that the British spy agency GCHQ sought unfettered access to NSA data collected under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Not only does this reveal that the two agencies have a far closer relationship than GCHQ would like to publicly admit, it also serves as a reminder that surveillance under Section 702 is a real problem that has barely been discussed, much less addressed, by Congress or the President.
In fact, the "manager’s amendment" to the USA FREEDOM Act, which passed unanimously out of the House Judiciary Committee, has weakened the minimal changes to Section 702 that USA FREEDOM originally offered. Although Representative Zoe Lofgren—who clearly understands the import of Section 702—offered several very good amendments that would have addressed these gaps, her amendments were all voted down. There’s still a chance though—as this bill moves through Congress it can be strengthened by amendments from the floor.
Section 702 has been used by the NSA to justify mass collection of phone calls and emails by collecting huge quantities of data directly from the physical infrastructure of communications providers. Here’s what you should know about the provision and why it needs to be addressed by Congress and the President:
Most of the discussion around the NSA has focused on the phone records surveillance program. Unlike that program, collection done under Section 702 capturescontent of communications. This could include content in emails, instant messages, Facebook messages, web browsing history, and more.
Even though it’s ostensibly used for foreign targets, Section 702 surveillance indiscriminately sweeps up everyone's communication, including the communications of Americans. The NSA has a twisted, and incredibly permissive, interpretation of targeting. As John Oliver put it in his interview with former NSA General Keith Alexander: "No, the target is not the American people, but it seems that too often you miss the target and hit the person next to them going, 'Whoa, him!'"
The NSA has confirmed that it is searching Section 702 data to access American’s communications without a warrant, in what is being called the "back door search loophole." In response to questions from Senator Ron Wyden, former NSA director General Keith Alexander admitted that the NSA specifically searches Section 702 data using "U.S. person identifiers," for example email addresses associated with someone in the U.S.
The NSA has used Section 702 to justify programs like PRISM, allowing the NSA to "siphon off large portions of Internet traffic directly from the Internet backbone." PRISM exploits the structure of the Internet, in which a significant amount of traffic from around the world flows through servers in the United States. According to the Washington Post, it gives the NSA direct access to servers of major American companies like Facebook and Google.
Section 702 is likely used for computer warfare, including activities targeting computers in the United States. We know that the NSA’s hacking outfit, the Tailored Access Operations Unit, needs information like that collected by PRISM to function, and Richard Ledgett, Deputy Director of NSA, noted the use of intelligence authorities to mitigate cyber attacks.
The FISA Court has little opportunity to review Section 702 collection. The court approves procedures for 702 collection for up to a year. This is not approval of specific targets, however; "court review [is] limited to 'procedures' for targeting and minimization rather than the actual seizure and searches." This lack of judicial oversight is far beyond the parameters of criminal justice.
Not only does the FISA Court provide little oversight, Congress is largely in the dark about Section 702 collection as well. NSA spying defenders say that Congress has been briefed on these programs. But other members of Congress have repeatedly noted that it is incredibly difficult to get answers from the intelligence community, and that attending classified hearings means being unable to share any information obtained at such hearings. What’s more, as Senator Barbara Mikulski stated: "'Fully briefed' doesn’t mean that we know what’s going on." Without a full picture of Section 702 surveillance, Congress simply cannot provide oversight.
Section 702 is not just about keeping us safe from terrorism. It’s a distressingly powerful surveillance tool. While the justification we’ve heard repeatedly is that NSA surveillance is keeping us safer, data collected under Section 702 can be shared in a variety of circumstances, such as ordinary criminal investigations. For example, the NSA has shared intelligence with the Drug Enforcement Agency that has led to prosecutions for drug crimes, all while concealing the source of the data.
Much like most of the legislation that Congress has proposed to fix NSA spying, the President has largely ignored Section 702. While Section 215 of FISA has received significant attention from President Obama, in his speeches and his most recent proposal, Section 702 remains nearly untouched.
The way the NSA uses Section 702 is illegal and unconstitutional—and it violates international human rights law. Unlike searches done under a search warrant authorized by a judge, Section 702 has been used by the NSA to get broad FISA court authorization for general search and seizure of huge swathes of communications. The NSA says this is OK because Section 702 targets foreign citizens. The problem is, once constitutionally protected communications of Americans are swept up, the NSA says these communications are “fair game” for its use.
Innocent non-Americans don't even get the limited and much abused protections the NSA promises for Americans. Under international human rights law to which the United States is a signatory, the United States must respect the rights of all persons. With so many people outside the United States keeping their data with American companies, and so much information being swept up through mass surveillance, that makes Section 702 the loophole for the NSA to violate the privacy rights of billions of Internet users worldwide.
The omission of Section 702 reform from the discourse around NSA surveillance is incredibly concerning, because this provision has been used to justify some of the most invasive NSA surveillance. That’s why EFF continues to push for real reform of NSA surveillance that includes an end to Section 702 collection. You can help by educating yourself and engaging your elected representatives. Print out our handy one-page explanation of Section 702. Contact your members of Congress today and tell them you want to see an end to all dragnet surveillance, not just bulk collection of phone records.