FBI warrantless searches of Americans' data more than doubled from 2020 to 2021, ODNI report

The FBI collected data from nearly 3.4 million Americans in 2021, more than double the over 1.3 million in 2020.

Updated: April 29, 2022 - 8:41pm

The FBI more than doubled the number of warrantless searches it conducted of Americans' communications data from 2020 to 2021, according to a report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The report released on Thursday explains how U.S. intelligence agencies use Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows for surveillance without a warrant of electronic communications data stored by U.S. internet service providers. ODNI pointed out that this year's report is the first to track the FBI's use of "unminimized Section 702 collection," which is raw data that the National Security Agency collects.

The FBI used Section 702 to collect data from nearly 3.4 million Americans in 2021, more than double the over 1.3 million in 2020. Those two years are the only ones for which the report provides statistics.

In a Friday press briefing on the report, a senior FBI official said that the 3.4 million figure "is certainly a large number," the Wall Street Journal reported. "I am not going to pretend that it isn't."

Nearly 2 million of the reported searches were part of an investigation into alleged Russian hackers attempting to break into the U.S.'s critical infrastructure. Senior officials said that the searches were part of efforts to identify and protect potential victims of the alleged Russian campaign, also according to the news outlet. 

According to the report, tracking the precise number of Americans subject to the FBI surveillance is difficult because of how the bureau tracks its Section 702 data, which is different from other federal agencies.

"For reasons discussed more fully below, these statistics are reported separately from NSA, CIA, and NCTC due to unique variations in FBI's data, chief among them that FBI does not count the number of unique query terms, but instead counts the total number of queries, which could include duplicate queries of the same term," the report said.

Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Friday, "For anyone outside the U.S. government, the astronomical number of FBI searches of Americans' communications is either highly alarming or entirely meaningless.

"Somewhere in all that over-counting are real numbers of FBI searches, for content and for non-content – numbers that Congress and the American people need before Section 702 is reauthorized.

"The FBI must also be transparent about the particular circumstances in which it conducted a staggering 1.9 million additional queries in 2021. Finally, the public deserves to know whether the FBI has fully addressed the extensive abuses of its 702 search authorities that have been documented for years. Baseline transparency is essential if the federal government wants to hold such sweeping surveillance powers."