ACLU: Government documents show surge in electronic surveillance

Warrantless surveillance of telephone calls, text messages and emails has shot up dramatically in recent years, according to Justice Department documents released by the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday.

The ACLU obtained the reports through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The documents show that real-time monitoring of electronic communications jumped 60 percent from 2009 to 2011. The Justice Department said it used “pen register” and “trap and trace” techniques 23,535 times in 2009 and 37,616 times in 2011.

The techniques can log information such as phone numbers and email addresses, but do not obtain the contents of the messages. Pen registers capture outgoing data, while trap-and-trace devices log incoming data.

The techniques used to require physical devices, but now interception capabilities are built into phones' hardware.

The ACLU said the documents show that more people were subjected to pen register and trap-and-trace surveillance in the past two years than in the entire previous decade.

The group said the Justice Department submitted the reports to Congress but they were never publicly released. 

"It shouldn’t take a FOIA lawsuit by the ACLU to force the disclosure of these valuable reports. There is nothing stopping Congress from releasing these reports, and doing so routinely," wrote Naomi Gilens of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

She noted that the reports only cover the Justice Department, and not other federal agencies or local police.

"As a result, the reports likely reveal only a small portion of the use of this surveillance power," she wrote.

The ACLU is pushing for a bill from Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) that would expand reporting requirements on the use of electronic surveillance.