FBI, CIA can query US communications collected by NSA

The FBI doesn't track the number of US searches it does on data collected for foreign intelligence purposes

The FBI and CIA can also query the content of U.S. residents' electronic communications that the National Security Agency inadvertently collects when targeting foreign terrorism suspects, an intelligence official said.

While privacy advocates have objected to a so-called "backdoor search loophole" allowing the NSA access to electronic communications by U.S. residents, it was unclear until now whether other agencies also had access to those emails, phone calls and other communications.

The information came out in a letter sent by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence to Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.

While the CIA and NSA conducted thousands of searches targeting U.S. communications in 2013, the FBI does not track number of searches it does, according to the ODNI's letter. But in any case both the CIA and FBI have access to communications accessed by the NSA, the letter said

The CIA and FBI are allowed to search that information for "foreign intelligence information," and the FBI also to search it to "find and extract evidence of a crime," Deirdre Walsh, ODNI's director of legislative affairs, wrote in the letter.

The letter was sent in response to a question Wyden had asked, during a June 5 hearing, about the number of U.S. searches the NSA was conducting through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a law designed to allow surveillance of foreign suspects.

"The queries in question are lawful, limited in scope, and subject to oversight as approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court," Walsh wrote in response. "Contrary to some claims, there is no loophole in the law, nor is the Intelligence Community conducting unlawful or 'backdoor searches' of communications of U.S. persons."

Wyden, a long-time critic of NSA surveillance programs, said searches by the CIA and FBI raise serious questions.

"When the FBI says it conducts a substantial number of searches and it has no idea of what the number is, it shows how flawed this system is and the consequences of inadequate oversight," Wyden said in a statement Monday. "This huge gap in oversight is a problem now, and will only grow as global communications systems become more interconnected."

Walsh's letter, sent to Wyden last week and posted by Wyden's office Monday, said the FBI "does not track how many queries it conducts using U.S. person identifiers."

That's troubling, Wyden said. "The findings transmitted to me raise questions about whether the FBI is exercising any internal controls over the use of backdoor searches including who and how many government employees can access the personal data of individual Americans," he said.

The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has said the NSA acquires more than 250 million Internet communications every year under the FISA authority, Wyden added. "Even if U.S. communications make up a small fraction of that total, the number of U.S. communications being collected is potentially quite large," he said

The agencies, under the NSA's surveillance program focused on foreign terrorism suspects, are able to query U.S. communications collected inadvertently. The "backdoor search loophole" allows the agencies to query the U.S. communications in an exception to FISA, which otherwise prohibits the NSA from intentionally targeting U.S. residents.

In June, the House of Representatives voted to close that so-called loophole by requiring the NSA to get a court-ordered warrant to search U.S records in its possession.

While Walsh's letter didn't give a specific number on the FBI searches, it noted that the NSA approved the search of the content of U.S. electronic communications in 198 cases in 2013. The NSA also queried the collected foreign intelligence metadata 9,500 times in 2013 using U.S. resident search terms, the letter said.

The CIA conducted less than 1,900 searches of U.S. communications during 2013, the letter said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Deirdre WalshtelecommunicationU.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance CourtU.S. National Security AgencyU.S. Office of the Director of National IntelligencegovernmentinternetprivacyU.S. CIAU.S. FBIsecurityRon WydenU.S. House of Representatives

More about FBIHouse of RepresentativesIDGNational Security AgencyNSA

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Grant Gross

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place