Told You So, FBI Back Door Search Edition

For a long time, I’ve been noting that the October 3, 2011 John Bates Opinion and last August’s Semiannual Report on FISA make it clear that the FBI, like the CIA and NSA, conducts back door searches off Section 702 collected data.

ODNI’s response to Ron Wyden’s request for actual numbers of how many back door searches the government conducts makes it clear that I was correct.

The report is even worse than I imagined. It shows the following:


FBI does back door searches for both foreign intelligence and criminal purposes. This means NSA’s language about keeping data for evidence of a crime is fairly meaningless, because they’re handing chunks of data off to FBI that it can troll for evidence of crime.

And the FBI doesn’t count these queries. In fact, FBI doesn’t even distinguish between when it is searching foreign and US person identifiers.They say only that “the number of queries is substantial.”


I expected all that from the FBI. What amazes me is that the CIA — an Agency that is not supposed to conduct domestic intelligence collection — does not count how many metadata-only queries of US person data it does. So all those fears of NSA identifying whether you’re visiting an AIDS clinic or a pregnancy counseling center? The NSA may not do that kind of analysis, but the CIA might be checking what foreigners you’re talking to.

The CIA also conducts a bunch of content queries — “fewer than 1900” — of which 40% are counterterrorism-related queries for other agencies. (Which leads me to wonder why neither NSA nor FBI are doing these queries, which would make more sense.) But that leaves 60% of 1900 — or around 1,100 queries a year of US person content that are for CIA’s own purposes and may not even be terrorism related.


The NSA conducts the fewest. It conducts 198 US person content queries (that is, not all that much fewer than the 248 US persons queried in the phone dragnet or collected on using another Section 215 order). It conducts 9,500 queries of metadata only queries, of which some are duplicative.

Compared to CIA’s uncountable number, that may not sound like a lot. But compare that to the phone dragnet, which also queried on fewer than 248 US person identifiers last year. That is, it is doing an order of magnitude more Internet metadata queries than it is phone queries.

One more thing: Last year’s FAA report revealed that CIA and NSA also sometimes accidentally query US person data. So the numbers of Americans sucked in via FAA may be significantly larger.


One more note about this report. PCLOB is due to release their Section 702 report on Wednesday. That is sure to have recommendations about how to protect US person privacy; Patricia Wald was quite clear in the most recent PCLOB hearing she believes the government should use a warrant to access this data. So Ron Wyden finally got a response, but it almost certain is only because PCLOB was about to make much of this public on their own.

(KS linked to this version of the Doors, thanks!)

9 replies
  1. Jerryy says:

    This is vaguely related, certainly often discussed here…:
    Rememberr when folks were wondering if the people (cia, nsa, etc) who turned the Stuxnet virus loose to attack Iranian nuclear energy companies were in fact setting us up for future troubles? Yeah, that ugly can of worms did indeed shed its skin and become the nest of vipers.
    So why are they spying on us instead of stopping these outside threats? I forget…

    • bloopie2 says:

      Good point. I have one question in that regard. Do people who dislike them spying on us, instead of fighting outside cybercrooks, really believe there is a valid, potentially severe threat from cyberattacks? I know I do – maybe not now but in 5-10 years.

      • Jerryy says:

        The short answer is ‘yes’.
        And like all short answers, it can take a lot of pages to give more context, … but five to ten years is pushing things out too far, bad stuff is happening now and the usual crowd is making money from it, Ms Emptywheel just had an article about Mr. Alexander now hawking his expertise.

  2. bloopie2 says:

    I think you’re right, everything IS a lot worse than you thought. In that regard, though, do you think that it’s just in the use of the programs you already know about, or do you think there are other programs that you don’t know about (known unknowns?)

  3. ArizonaBumblebee says:

    This information confirms our worst fears. I am not an attorney, so please explain to me why what the FBI is doing is not a transparent violation of Mapp v. Ohio when it relates to criminal investigations? From what I know, it sure seems like a criminal defendant could assert that he or she was convicted based on tainted evidence.

  4. Pete says:

    Yes, but one wonders if, like the subject matter of the very excellently chosen Doors song, does the FBI run out the backdoor before one catches them in the act?

    Of course the alternate (sexual) interpretation of the song’s meaning seems to have some applicability as well.

  5. bloopie2 says:

    Anticipating Hobby Lobby articles, I’ll stick my two cents’ worth in now . If my religion tells me it’s okay to kill infidels, does that mean I can ignore the laws against murder? Or, if I’m the CIA, can I claim that Muslims are out to get us and so we can pre-emptively kill them for that reason (as well as for all the other reasons we do that?)

  6. Jeff A. Taylor says:

    Fairly conclusive now, even to skeptics, that Snowden doc programs were used to create/ID informants/assets. Absolutely no other pro-active purpose to such activity.

  7. Gene Cavanaugh says:

    I am an attorney, and a history buff. I feel we are further along toward a dictatorship than anyone seems to grasp. As a serviceman (Korean War), I can say – this not what I served for! I accepted a dictatorship in the service because that’s what the service is, but not in civilian life!

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