Tech
Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and head of the U.S. Cyber Command, answers questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 12, 2013, during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

FISA court essentially a rubber stamp for government, report finds

The secret government court put in place under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to review government efforts to spy on foreign nationals and American citizens without a warrant approved the vast majority of the government’s requests, a report published in The New York Times on Friday found.

Citing data compiled by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the report cast the FISA court as little more than a rubber stamp for NSA and FBI attempts to eavesdrop on the cyber-activity of millions of users of Internet giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Yahoo.

The data itself is stunning. Of the more than 20,000 FISA applications presented to the court by the government since 2001 — when the Patriot Act greatly reduced the threshold at which the applications could be made — only 11 were rejected. Similarly, the court allowed the FBI to issue more than 140,000 National Security Letters since 2004.

The report containing the data defines National Security Letters as “extraordinary search procedures giving the FBI the power to compel the disclosure of customer records held by banks, telephone companies, Internet Service Providers, and others.” Many technology companies have attempted to fight these orders in court, often with little success.

Yahoo in particular, the article noted, argued in 2008 in front of the court that to hand over data on its customers would be unconstitutional.

The court’s response: “Notwithstanding the parade of horribles trotted out by the petitioner, it has presented no evidence of any actual harm, any egregious risk of error, or any broad potential for abuse.”

In the conclusion of its decision, the court referenced “serviceable safeguards” that the government puts in place to “protect individuals against unwarranted harms and to minimize incidental intrusions.”

It is unclear if the court recognized its role as one of those safeguards, as it continued, “efforts to protect national security should not be frustrated by the courts.”