FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Spying by the Numbers

by BILL QUIGLEY

Thanks to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden many more people in the US and world-wide are learning about extensive US government surveillance and spying.  There are publicly available numbers which show the reality of these problems are bigger than most think and most of this spying is happening with little or no judicial oversight.

Hundreds of Thousands Subject to Government Surveillance

The first reality is that hundreds of thousands of people in the US have been subject to government surveillance in each of the last few years. Government surveillance of people in the US is much more widespread than those in power want to admit.   In the last three years alone about 5000 requests have been granted for complete electronic surveillance authorized by the secret FISA court.  The FBI has authorized another 50,000 surveillance operations with National Security Letters in the last three years.  The government admits that well over 300,000 people have had their phone calls intercepted by state and federal wiretaps in the last year alone.  More than 50,000 government requests for internet information are received each year as reported by internet providers. And, remember, these are the publicly reported numbers so you can be confident there is a whole lot more going on which has not been publicly reported.

Courts Almost Never Deny Government Requests for Surveillance

The second reality is that there is little to no serious oversight or accountability by the courts of this surveillance.  Government spy defenders keep suggesting the courts are looking carefully and rigorously at all this and only letting a tiny number of really bad people be spied on.  Not true.  Despite thousands of requests by the federal government to look deeply into people’s lives, the secret federal FISA court turned down no requests at all in the last three years.  The state and federal courts report on wiretap applications document over 2000 applications annually for surveillance which authorize the interception of hundreds of thousands of calls and emails.  The courts have turned down the government two times in the most recent report.  FBI national security letters do not even have to be authorized by a court at all.  The lack of Congressional oversight is plain to see but the lack of any judicial review of many of these surveillance actions and the very weak oversight where courts do review should concern anyone who cares about government accountability.

Let’s break down the surveillance by the authority for spying.

In FISA Court Government Always Wins  

The US government has tried to say the public should not worry about government scooping up hundreds of millions of phone calls and internet activities because no real information is disclosed unless it is authorized by what is called the FISA court.  Therefore, you can trust us with this information.

The FISA Court, actually called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, is made up of ten federal judges who deliberate and decide in secret whether the government can gather and review millions of phone and internet records.  This court, though I know and respect several of its members, cannot, be considered an aggressive defender of constitutional rights and civil liberties.

Government lawyers go to these FISA judges in secret.  Government lawyers present secret evidence in secret proceedings with no defense lawyer or public or press allowed and asks for secret orders allowing the government to secretly spy on people.  Its opinions are secret.  The part the public knows is a one paragraph report which is made every year of the number of applications and the number of denials by the court.

What is worse is that the judges in this secret court never turn the secret government lawyers down.

Over the last three years, the government has made 4,976 requests to the secret FISA court for permission to conduct electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes. But the really big FISA number is zero.  Zero is the number of government requests to conduct electronic surveillance the FISA court has turned down in the last three years.

In 2012, the government asked for permission from the judges of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) 1,789 times to conduct electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes.  There were zero denials.  One time the government withdrew its request.

In 2011, the government asked FISA judges 1,676 times to conduct electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence services.  There were zero denials.  The government withdrew two requests.

In 2010, the government asked FISA judges 1,511 times to conduct electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes.  There were zero denials.  The government withdrew five requests.

Not a bad record, huh?  Nearly five thousand victories for those who want surveillance powers and no defeats is a record that should concern everyone who seeks to protect civil liberties.

FBI National Security Letters Scoop Up Information No Court Approval Even Needed

With a NSL letter the FBI can demand financial records from any institution from banks to casinos, all telephone records, subscriber information, credit reports, employment information, and all email records of the target as well as the email addresses and screen names for anyone who has contacted that account.  The reason is supposed to be for foreign counterintelligence.  There is no requirement for court approval at all.  The Patriot Act has made this much easier for the FBI.

According to Congressional records, there have been over 50,000 of these FBI NSL requests in the last three years.  This does not count the numerous times where the FBI persuades the disclosure of information without getting a NSL.  Nor does it count FBI requests made just to find out who an email account belongs to.

These reported NSL numbers also do not include the very high numbers of administrative subpoenas issued by the FBI which only require approval of a member of the local US Attorney’s office.

In 2012, the FBI issued 15,229 national security letter requests for information concerning US citizens.

In 2011, the FBI made 16,511 national security letter requests for information concerning US persons.

In 2010, the FBI made 24,287 national security letter requests for information on US citizens.

Since there is no court approval needed, there are no denials.  The NSL record is even better than the FISA record at 56,027 wins and no losses for Team Surveillance.

Thousands of Wiretaps Each Impacting Over One Hundred People Authorized Two Denied

According to the latest report to Congress by the US Courts, there were 2,732 applications for wiretaps submitted to all federal and to half of the state courts in 2011.  Half the states did not report on their numbers, so these numbers are certainly quite much too low.  Also, the term wiretap is out of date as this process currently covers providing information on conventional phone lines, cell phones, secret microphones, texts, fax, paging, and email computer transmissions.

For the year 2011, out of 2,732 applications, only two were denied.  Two losses out of 2700 tries is a comparatively poor win loss record for the surveillance folks.

On average, each wiretap intercepted the communications of 113 people, thus over three hundred thousand people had their calls intercepted.

The most prevalent reason reported for the wiretaps was drug offenses.  The average length of the wiretap was 42 days.  One federal wiretap in Michigan resulted in intercepting over 71,000 cellular messages extending over 202 days.  A New York state wiretap intercepted 274,210 messages over 564 days.

 Company Reports on Spying Show Tens of Thousands of Requests

It is well known that user accounts at Google, Apple and others contain a treasure trove of information on the customer’s basic information including searches, likes and dislikes, purchases, friends, and the like.  Government investigators seek this information tens of thousands times each year as the reports from the companies show.

Apple reported receiving 4,000 to 5,000 government requests for information on customers in just the last six months.  From December 1, 2012 to May 31, 2013 Apple received law enforcement requests for customer data on 9-10,000 accounts or devices.  Most of these requests are from police for robberies, missing children, etc.

Facebook reported that in a six month period ending December 31, 2012, it received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests from the US government for user data on 18,000 to 19,000 accounts.

Google reported it received over 15,000 requests for data by US government officials in 2012 for information on over 30,000 accounts.  It produced some data 88% of the time.

Microsoft (including Skype) reported 75,378 law enforcement requests for information on 137,424 accounts world-wide for the year 2012.  In over 11,000 cases, they could find no data to respond to the requests.  Microsoft disclosed non-content information in 56,388 cases, mostly to the US, UK, Turkey, Germany and France. In the US, Microsoft received 11,073 requests from law enforcement for information on 24,565 accounts.  Microsoft rejected 759 requests or 6.9% on legal grounds.  Microsoft provided user content in 1544 cases and subscriber/transactional data in 7,196 cases.

Yahoo said that in the last six months of 2012 it received between 12,000 and 13,000 requests for user data from law enforcement.

In a democracy, transparency and public participation are critical.  This is not just about “the terrorists.”  This is about civil liberty and government accountability.  Hundreds of thousands of people are being spied upon every year by our own government’s public admissions.  There is little oversight by judges and even less by Congress.  If the government admits this much, you can certainly assume there is more to come out.  It is time to wake up.  These secret subpoenas and secret courts and secret processes should be abolished or fundamentally changed.  Otherwise, change the slogan on the dollar to “In Secrecy We Trust.”

Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.  Bill also works with the Center for Constitutional Rights.  A longer version of this article with full sources is available.  You can reach Bill at quigley77@gmail.com

 

More articles by:

Bill Quigley teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and can be reached at quigley77@gmail.com.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

June 28, 2017
Diana Johnstone
Macron’s Mission: Save the European Union From Itself
Jordon Kraemer
The Cultural Anxiety of the White Middle Class
Vijay Prashad
Modi and Trump: When the Titans of Hate Politics Meet
Jonathan Cook
Israel’s Efforts to Hide Palestinians From View No Longer Fools Young American Jews
Ron Jacobs
Gonna’ Have to Face It, You’re Addicted to War
Jim Lobe – Giulia McDonnell Nieto Del Rio
Is Trump Blundering Into the Next Middle East War?
Radical Washtenaw
David Ware, Killed By Police: a Vindication
John W. Whitehead
The Age of No Privacy: the Surveillance State Shifts into High Gear
Robert Mejia, Kay Beckermann and Curtis Sullivan
The Racial Politics of the Left’s Political Nostalgia
Tom H. Hastings
Courting Each Other
Winslow Myers
“A Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind”
Leonard Peltier
The Struggle is Never for Nothing
Jonathan Latham
Illegal GE Bacteria Detected in an Animal Feed Supplement
Deborah James
State of Play in the WTO: Toward the 11th Ministerial in Argentina
Binoy Kampmark
The European Commission, Google and Anti-Competition
Jesse Jackson
A Savage Health Care Bill
Jimmy Centeno
Cats and Meows in L.A
June 27, 2017
Jim Kavanagh
California Scheming: Democrats Betray Single-Payer Again
Jonathan Cook
Hersh’s New Syria Revelations Buried From View
Edward Hunt
Excessive and Avoidable Harm in Yemen
Howard Lisnoff
The Death of Democracy Both Here and Abroad and All Those Colorful Sneakers
Gary Leupp
Immanuel Kant on Electoral Interference
Kenneth Surin
Theresa May and the Tories are in Freefall
Slavoj Zizek
Get the Left
Robert Fisk
Saudi Arabia Wants to Reduce Qatar to a Vassal State
Ralph Nader
Driverless Cars: Hype, Hubris and Distractions
Rima Najjar
Palestinians Are Seeking Justice in Jerusalem – Not an Abusive Life-Long Mate
Norman Solomon
Is ‘Russiagate’ Collapsing as a Political Strategy?
Binoy Kampmark
In the Twitter Building: Tech Incubators and Altering Perceptions
Dean Baker
Uber’s Repudiation is the Moment for the U.S. to Finally Start Regulating the So-called Sharing Economy
Rob Seimetz
What I Saw From The Law
George Wuerthner
The Causes of Forest Fires: Climate vs. Logging
June 26, 2017
William Hawes – Jason Holland
Lies That Capitalists Tell Us
Chairman Brandon Sazue
Out of the Shadow of Custer: Zinke Proves He’s No “Champion” of Indian Country With his Grizzly Lies
Patrick Cockburn
Grenfell Tower: the Tragic Price of the Rolled-Back Stat
Joseph Mangano
Tritium: Toxic Tip of the Nuclear Iceberg
Ray McGovern
Hersh’s Big Scoop: Bad Intel Behind Trump’s Syria Attack
Roy Eidelson
Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook
Geoff Beckman
Why Democrats Lose: the Case of Jon Ossoff
Matthew Stevenson
Travels Around Trump’s America
David Macaray
Law Enforcement’s Dirty Little Secret
Colin Todhunter
Future Shock: Imagining India
Yoav Litvin
Animals at the Roger Waters Concert
Binoy Kampmark
Pride in San Francisco
Stansfield Smith
North Koreans in South Korea Face Imprisonment for Wanting to Return Home
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail