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The National Security Agency identified Americans or U.S. entities nearly tripled last year in intelligence reports from a warrantless surveillance program, totaling more than 31,300 times. This increase was due to foreign hackers attempting to infiltrate critical infrastructure, not individual people. The surveillance statistics are published annually to provide transparency into how intelligence agencies utilize their spying powers, particularly under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). This exception allows the government to collect data from foreigners abroad without a warrant, including when they communicate with Americans, sparking controversy since its enactment in 2008.

The recent renewal of Section 702 by Congress for two years reflected changes meant to limit the F.B.I.’s use of the surveillance program. Restrictions imposed by the bill were not captured in the latest report, but many had already been implemented by the bureau in 2021. The number of American identifiers the F.B.I. searched using Section 702 database terms significantly decreased, from over 2.9 million between December 2000 and November 2021 to roughly 57,094 in the previous year. Despite this decline, the total number of Americans or American entities identified in intelligence reports increased, signaling a potential shift in how the program is being utilized.

The report highlighted that no ordinary criminal investigations were initiated into Americans based on information gathered through Section 702 last year. However, it disclosed instances where F.B.I. officials accessed query results for potential ordinary crime investigations and the frequency at which this occurred. In some cases, agents conducted searches essentially amounting to fishing expeditions without sufficient justification, leading to concerns about privacy violations and the need for court orders for such queries. Pushback from national security officials against this proposal argues that it could hinder the program’s effectiveness, a notion supported by the tied vote in the House on adding such a limit to the Section 702 extension bill.

Overall, the report provided insights into the increasing use of surveillance powers under Section 702 and the efforts to regulate and limit its scope. While the bill extension introduced changes aimed at restricting the F.B.I.’s access and searches, the data showed a rise in the number of Americans identified in surveillance reports. As debates continue over the balance between national security concerns and individual privacy rights, the development of regulations and oversight mechanisms remains crucial to ensure the appropriate and lawful use of surveillance programs. The annual disclosure of surveillance statistics serves as a critical tool for monitoring and evaluating the impact of these programs on American citizens and entities.

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