FBI ignored privacy rules for years

FBI ignored privacy rules for years
© Getty Images

The FBI took seven years to fulfill a legal obligation that it adopt additional privacy protections for searches under legal provisions of the Patriot Act currently up for debate in the Senate.

A Justice Department watchdog report released on Thursday claimed that the FBI’s 2013 implementation of “minimization procedures” for data collected under Section 215 of the Patriot Act was too long of a wait, given that Congress had demanded the measures in a 2006 reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

“The [Justice] Department and FBI ultimately produced final minimization procedures specifically designed for Section 215 materials in 2013,” the inspector general’s office said.

“Given the significance of minimization procedures in the Reauthorization Act, we do not believe it should have taken 7 years for the Department to develop minimization procedures or 5 years to address the [office of the inspector general] recommendation that the Department comply with the statutory requirement to develop specific minimization procedures designed for business records,” it claimed.

The Department of Justice’s inspector general had previously recommended that the FBI adopt those protections in a 2008 report.

Section 215 of the law authorizes the government to collect “any tangible things” that are “relevant” to a terrorism investigation. The National Security Agency (NSA) has controversially used the law to collect millions of Americans’ phone records.

The legal provision is set to run out at the end of the month, and the Senate has been scrambling to try and save it.

Letting it run out would be a “big problem,” FBI Director James Comey warned this week. 

Additionally, the inspector general’s report found that the FBI uses the provision to collect at least some records about people’s activity on the Internet, that it can yield gigabytes of information and that some of those searches also focused on people who were not direct subjects of their investigations.

Between 2007 and 2009, agents “did not identify any major case developments that resulted from use of the records obtained in response to Section 215 orders,” the watchdog added. However, that material was nonetheless “valuable in that it was used to support other investigative requests, develop investigative leads and corroborate other information," agents said.

For critics of the Patriot Act, Thursday’s report was one more sign that Congress needs to reform — or kill — the law.

“The FBI is using Section 215 to collect huge volumes of information, including metadata and electronic records, about innocent people,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jameel Jaffer wrote on Reddit. “And despite all of this collection, the FBI is unable to point to any case—not even one!—in which the information it obtained turned out to be crucial to an investigation.”