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FISA court scolds FBI for 'widespread violations' of privacy rules

Bureau's upstream searching of records routinely violates privacy protections, Judge Boasberg rules.

Updated: September 8, 2020 - 2:49pm

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Under Director Chris Wray, the FBI continues to engage in "widespread violations" of rules protecting Americans' privacy while searching through national security surveillance data, the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has concluded.

In a ruling made in December but unsealed over the Labor Day weekend, Judge James Boasberg revealed that a July 2019 audit had found 87 instances in which the FBI queried "raw FISA acquired" evidence even though agents or analysts "were not reasonably likely to retrieve foreign intelligence information or evidence of a crime" as required by law. In other words, they risked violating Americans' privacy without a lawful basis.

"There still appear to be widespread violations of the querying standard by the FBI," Boasberg concluded, citing examples in which NSA records were searched for unnecessary or unlawful reasons.

You can read the ruling here.

In his 83-page heavily redacted ruling, the judge also cited concern about a group of searches involving 16,000 people, rejecting the bureau's argument they were necessary and lawful.

"Based on the facts reported, the FBI's position that the queries for all 16,000 persons were reasonably likely to retrieve foreign-intelligence information or evidence of a crime is unsupportable," he wrote,

Despite the concerns, the judge nonetheless proceeded to approve the latest rules allowing the FBI to continue to conduct such searches of data gathered by the National Security Agency or under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"After considering the matters discussed above and other incidents reported by the government and assessing the overall state of implementation of the current targeting, querying, and minimization procedures, the Court finds that the proposed procedures, as reasonably expected to be implemented, comply with applicable statutory and Fourth Amendment requirements," Boasberg wrote.

"It will, however, continue to monitor the government's implementation of the procedures, especially regarding U.S.-person queries."

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