(WASHINGTON) — Today, new disclosures related to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) — a controversial warrantless surveillance tool set to expire at the end of this year— confirmed the worst fears of civil rights and civil liberties advocates, including the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT). We now know that the FBI, which has already been under scrutiny for a litany of past compliance violations involving Section 702, engaged in improper searches for Americans’ communications targeted at political activities and actors.
The new FISA Court documents revealed FBI queries to pull up Americans’ communications — collected with FISA Section 702, and entirely without a warrant — of 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign, as well as over 100 civil rights protesters demonstrating in the 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd. This is a shocking misuse of what has become known as the backdoor search loophole.
Jake Laperruque, Deputy Director of CDT’s Security & Surveillance Project, says:
“Even with the long history of FBI misuse of FISA 702, these latest revelations should set off alarm bells across Congress. The systemic misuse of this warrantless surveillance tool has made FISA 702 as toxic as COINTELPRO and the FBI abuses of the Hoover years. Absent a full overhaul of Section 702 and related surveillance powers, Congress should not allow the law to be extended past this year.
For decades, we’ve seen surveillance abuse target political dissidents and marginalized communities, and worried a defensive search exception for FISA 702 could be misused the same way. This shocking example of ‘defensive searches’ being an excuse to pull up the communications of a batch of 19,000 political donors without a warrant should end the discussion of whether any type of ‘defensive search’ exception is safe or acceptable.”
CDT recently highlighted how warrantless “defensive searches”—whereby the FBI seeks out communications of someone that may be a victim or target of a foreign influence operation—are vulnerable to abuse. That fear was confirmed by new revelations that a mass batch query for 19,000 political donors’ communications was conducted as a purported defensive search.
The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) is the leading nonpartisan, nonprofit organization fighting to advance civil rights and civil liberties in the digital age. We shape technology policy, governance, and design with a focus on equity and democratic values. Established in 1994, CDT has been a trusted advocate for digital rights since the earliest days of the internet.