In an effort to obtain an estimate of the number of Americans whose digital communications are incidentally collected under foreign surveillance programs, a U.S. congressional committee sent an official request to the director of national intelligence on Friday.
According to Reuters, the letter, addressed to director Dan Coats from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican, and John Conyers, the committee’s ranking Democrat, asserted that such an estimate is “crucial, as we contemplate reauthorization” of parts of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that will expire at the end of 2017.
The request signals Republican legislators’ interest in the possible implementation of additional privacy safeguards regarding the methods by which U.S. intelligence agencies collect and share material that contains information about Americans.
For years, privacy advocates have insisted that the U.S. government disclose an estimate of how many Americans are affected by programs authorized under a specific part of FISA, known as Section 702, which authorizes the collection of vast quantities of internet communications by foreigners thought to be residing overseas.
Some experts and legislators contend that data from millions of Americans could be captured under such surveillance, making them vulnerable to warrantless searches by federal investigators.
“It is clear that Section 702 surveillance programs can and do collect information about U.S. persons, on subjects unrelated to counter-terrorism,” wrote Goodlatte and Conyers, who requested a response to their letter by April 24. “It is imperative that we understand the size of this impact on U.S. persons as our committee proceeds with the debate on reauthorization.”
Members of the House Judiciary Committee said in a separate letter sent last December to the outgoing Obama administration that they were assured by officials that an estimate would be forthcoming, likely by January 2017.
When asked in March by Reuters if an estimate would be provided by year’s end, Richard Ledgett, the deputy director of the National Security Agency, said “yes” and asserted that approximately 20 “vignettes” would be publicly released that illustrate the integral national security value of Section 702, which officials have characterized as one of their most essential intelligence tools.
Without congressional action, Section 702 will expire on Dec. 31, 2017.
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