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Civil liberties groups are correctly demanding the release of more information on a reported surge in U.S. call records collected by the National Security Agency.

Last month it was reported by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that the NSA collected over 530 million American call records in 2017. That’s three times the number of call records reportedly collected by the agency in 2016, which was about 151 million.

Timothy Barrett, a spokesman at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, downplayed the significance of the significant increase in records collected. “We expect this number to fluctuate from year to year,” he said, according to Reuters.

As Neema Singh Guliani, ACLU legislative counsel, replied, “This canned response is woefully inadequate, and Congress should press for more answers.”
Indeed, while there might be some legitimate and non-nefarious reasons for such an increase in records collected, the American public and their representatives deserve a better explanation than that.

A coalition of two dozen civil liberties groups have submitted a letter to the Office of Director of National Intelligence and to the House Judiciary Committee demanding more information about what explains this increase. The coalition crosses ideological divides and includes the ACLU, the Campaign for Liberty, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the R Street Institute.

“Because the NSA has failed to report the number of unique identifiers impacted, we are left with no way to assess whether this surge is due to duplication, over-reporting or an abuse of the government’s authority,” the letter argues.

Notably, the same report that revealed the surge in phone record collections also included information revealing significant increases in the number of individuals targeted for warrantless surveillance under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

In 2017, there were 129,080 non-Americans targeted for such surveillance. That’s up from 106,469 in 2016 and up from 89,138 in 2013.

One of the biggest concerns about warrantless surveillance conducted under Section 702 is that the communications of American citizens entitled to Fourth Amendment protections can often be swept up in these warrantless collections. “The NSA, CIA, and National Counterterrorism Center conducted over 7,500 of these backdoor searches [in 2017], and the FBI does not report the number of searches it conducts at all,” the ACLU notes.

Legislative efforts to better protect the constitutional rights of Americans with regard to Section 702 were unfortunately thwarted earlier this year. Noted Democrats including Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, Adam Schiff, D-Burbank and Pete Aguilar, D-Redlands voted down amendments to protect the constitutional rights of Americans in the House, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, also helped shut down debate in the Senate.
Consequently, bipartisan legislation from Senators Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, wasn’t able to advance.

Alas, there seems to be more bipartisan interest in sustaining a sweeping surveillance than bipartisan interest in curtailing such mass surveillance. Regardless, we urge Congress to always press for more transparency and more limits on the surveillance state they’ve to date enabled.

Orange County Register, June 6

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