Surveillance Court Finds FBI Repeatedly Misused FISA Program to Conduct Unlawful Surveillance of Americans
April 29, 2021
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) recently disclosed an opinion revealing that the FBI has repeatedly misused Section 702 of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to gather information in domestic investigations. Section 702 (sometimes referred to as the “PRISM” program) authorizes certain programs of surveillance of private communications for foreign intelligence purposes, without prior court approval, where the surveillance targets non-US persons located abroad. The law has been widely criticized, in part, because of the “backdoor search” loophole that allows domestic law enforcement officials to access Americans’ communications without a warrant. The surveillance court previously found that the FBI’s procedures for obtaining information through backdoor searches violated the Fourth Amendment. The newly published opinion demonstrates how the FBI has failed to reform these unlawful practices. An audit revealed that the agency searched FISA information 40 times last year while investigating a wide range of purely domestic crimes, including health-care fraud, gang violence, domestic terrorism by “racially motivated violent extremists,” and public corruption. Again, the FISC expressed “concern about the [FBI’s] apparent widespread [Section 702] violations.” EPIC has long tracked FISA court orders and advocated for FISA reform. More recently, EPIC filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking disclosure of a report concerning FBI use of Section 702 authority for domestic criminal investigations and participated as amicus to address the scope of U.S. surveillance authorities in the Court of Justice of the European Union.