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FBI Electronic Warrantless Searches Dropped Sharply Last Year

FBI warrantless searches of telephone calls, emails and text messages plummeted last year, dropping from millions to about 120,000. A senior FBI official attributed the drop in part to better compliance with restrictions on searches of the data after internal reforms, as well as to variations in national-security investigations, the Wall Street Journal reports. A large percentage of searches in 2021 were related to efforts to identify potential victims of an unidentified Russian hacking campaign that struck critical infrastructure in the U.S., said a federal report released Friday. Other factors in the decline include changes in suspected foreign spies’ communications practices and advances in technology. From December 2021 to November of last year, the FBI searched Americans’ communications about 120,000 times under a foreign-intelligence program, said the annual report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Another process for counting the searches, which officials said was probably less accurate because it included instances of multiple counts of the same search, put the figure at about 204,000 searches.

The estimates would be mor than a 90% decline from the number of estimated searches a year before, tabulated at about 3 million to 3.4 million. Congress is considering whether to amend the law that authorizes the surveillance program before it expires at year's end. The foreign-spying program, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the National Security Agency to capture without a warrant communications thought to belong to foreigners living abroad. Americans’ data is often vacuumed up as well, such as when a foreign spy is communicating with someone in the U.S. April Doss, the top lawyer at the National Security Agency, said that 59% of intelligence included in the president’s daily brief—a dossier on security matters for the commander-in-chief—is gleaned at least in part from Section 702. Some of the classified files alleged to have been leaked by Airman Jack Teixeira contain markings showing they are derived from FISA intelligence, and many of them were likely obtained through the 702 program.

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