The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its Annual Statistical Transparency Report for 2021, which for the first time included the number of warrantless searches of US citizens’ electronic data conducted by the FBI.
According to the report, the FBI conducted about 3.39 million searches of Americans’ data without a warrant. The searches are technically legal under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Of the 3.9 million searches, the majority were conducted in response to claims of Russian cyber threats. According to The Washington Times, about 1.9 million of the searches were made in response to one alleged Russian cyber threat to critical US infrastructure.
It’s not clear what threat the FBI was responding to, and the US often accuses the Russian government of launching cyberattacks without offering evidence to back up the accusations. However, the US blamed the 2021 Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack on the Russian hacking group REvil, and the Russian government responded by dismantling REvil at the behest of Washington.
The searches for 2021 marked a significant increase from the prior year. According to the report, in 2020, the FBI conducted 1.32 million warrantless data searches. The report said the FBI can conduct such searches on persons “that are both reasonably likely to return foreign intelligence information and … queries that are reasonably likely to return evidence of a crime.”
The release of the search numbers was the result of legislation led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) aimed at protecting Americans’ privacy. “The public deserves to know whether the FBI has fully addressed the extensive abuses of its 702 search authorities that have been documented for years. Baseline transparency is essential if the federal government wants to hold such sweeping surveillance powers,” Wyden said.