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Top US spy agency unveils surging FBI surveillance of Americans

FBI headquarters in Washington, DC (Photo by Reuters)

Nearly 3.4 Americans were subjected to secret surveillance last year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, the office of top US spy chief revealed in an official report.

The “queries” were made between December 2020 and November 2021 by FBI agents as they looked for signs of threats and terrorists within electronic data legally collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, so claimed an annual transparency report released Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Bloomberg reported.

According to the report, the FBI searched emails, texts and other electronic communications of “fewer than 3,394,053” US residents without a warrant, justifying the move by claiming that it was looking for foreign hackers.

This is while the FBI had made fewer than 1.3 million such queries during the same period the previous year, the ODNI report noted, marking a major surge of nearly three-fold.

US-based rights groups, however, blasted the big surge in FBI surveillance of Americans as an “enormous” invasion of privacy.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reacted to the ODNI report by censuring the spying effort as an invasion of privacy “on an enormous scale.”

“Today’s report sheds light on the extent of these unconstitutional ‘backdoor searches,’ and underscores the urgency of the problem,” ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Ashley Gorski said in a statement. “It’s past time for Congress to step in to protect Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights.”

The ODNI document further insisted that the electronic data was collected legally under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), saying that the soaring spying cases were due to “a number of large batch queries related to attempts to compromise US critical infrastructure by foreign cyber actors,” in the first half of 2021, which “included approximately 1.9 million query terms related to potential victims -- including US persons.”

This accounts for the “vast majority of the increase in US person queries conducted by FBI over the prior year,” the report went on to claim.

According to the Bloomberg report, however, the exact number of US residents who potentially had their information reviewed is not known because there is no precise way to measure the data.

The development came months after two US senators raised concerns over spying upon unsuspecting Americans by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich alleged in February that CIA had “secretly" conducted warrantless surveillance through a newly disclosed program.

Government data collection has been the subject of much controversy in the US.

Officially, top US spy agencies -- the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) -- have a foreign surveillance mission and domestic spying is prohibited by the CIA's 1947 charter.

In 2013, however, a program of data collection using extensive internet and phone surveillance by American intelligence was disclosed to the public by Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor-turned whistle-blower.

A Washington Post analysis of the Snowden leak at the time found that nearly 90 percent of those being monitored by the US spy agencies were ordinary Americans "caught in a net the National Security Agency had cast for somebody else."

Top officials had until then denied - and even lied under oath to Congress - that they were knowingly collecting such data.

The program, known as Prism, was later ruled unlawful by a US court.

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