Spy court OK'd all U.S. wiretap requests it received in 2012

All 1,856 warrant requests to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court were granted, a DOJ report shows

A special court established to review government requests for warrants to conduct electronic surveillance of suspected foreign spies received close to 1,900 warrant requests last year -- all of which it approved.

A report released earlier this week by the U.S. Department of Justice to the Senate shows the government in 2012 made 1,856 requests with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) for authority to conduct electronic and physical surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes. Of those, 1,789 were explicitly for electronic surveillance of suspects. The rest were for either physical surveillance alone or a combination of both.

The government later withdrew one of its warrant requests and the FISC modified 40 of the proposed orders. But in the end, the court did not reject a single surveillance request from the government either wholly or in part, in 2012.

The same was true of the government's requests for access to business records of individuals suspected of spying on the U.S. The government made 212 applications to the FISC for access to the business records of such individuals and the court approved all of them. In this case, however, the court made modifications to 200 of the requests but it is unclear what those modifications were.

The numbers released by the DOJ represent a 16.7% increase over similar requests in 2011. They are sure to focus attention once again on the government's use of the controversial FISA Amendments Act of 2008 to keep tabs on foreign spies.

The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 amends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. It was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2012, but was extended for another four years by the U.S. Senate on Dec. 28 and signed into law by President Obama two days later.

The statute is an anti-terror measure that authorizes U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance, including electronic wiretapping, of foreign nationals in the U.S and overseas who are believed to pose a national security risk. Proponents of the measure have described it as a vital tool in the fight against terrorism. They maintain that concerns about how the law is used are overblown and insist that it is used purely to keep an eye on those seeking to harm the U.S.

But many others believe that the manner in which the law has been written allows U.S spy agencies to intercept, with little oversight, phone calls and other electronic communications that may involve innocent U.S. citizens. Though the original FISA applied only to people based outside the U.S., the amended act also gives the government broad power to monitor communications between people in the U.S. and residents of other countries who are alleged to pose a risk to national security.

Various advocacy groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) have expressed concern that government agencies are using the law to justify extensive surveillance of both foreign nationals and millions of Americans.

Several lawmakers too have expressed concerns over the lack of transparency in how the law is being used and have asked for more oversight.

The law has also garnered considerable attention in the European Union where privacy authorities have expressed concern over how it will affect European businesses that have their data hosted with U.S. cloud providers.

In a report released last fall before the law was reauthorized, European data regulators warned of how the law specifically targeted data of non-US individuals located outside the U.S. The scope of the surveillance authorized under the amended act goes beyond the interception of communications and covers any data in cloud environments as well, the report cautioned.

FISA "can be seen categorically as a much graver risk to EU data sovereignty than other laws hitherto considered by EU policy makers," the report said.

This article, Spy court OK'd all U.S. wiretap requests it received in 2012, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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