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Redacted ruling reveals federal court approved FBI's warrantless search of data

A redacted ruling from a federal court revealed that between mid-2019 and early 2020, the FBI sought information without proper justification, including conducting queries into data containing American communications.

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Hannah Nightingale Washington DC
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A redacted ruling from a federal court revealed that between mid-2019 and early 2020, the FBI sought information without proper justification, including conducting queries into data containing American communications, The Washington Post reports.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court presiding judge James E. Boasberg said these violations came before improvements to the querying system and training program were implemented.

"While the Court is concerned about the apparent widespread violations, it lacks sufficient information at this time” to assess the sufficiency of changes to FBI systems and training, said Boasberg.

"The Court is willing to again conclude that the... [FBI’s] procedures meet statutory and Fourth Amendment requirements," he continued.

This latest violation came in the form of an FBI specialist conducting background investigations on individuals looking to take part in an FBI "Citizens Academy" program that would help create an understanding of the role bureau takes within the community. Also looked at as part of the 124 queries were those who entered field offices to perform repairs and related services, and those who were looking to report tips and crimes.

This new finding marks at least the third case of FBI rules breached in recent memory, bringing analysts to question whether the issue is systemic.

The FBI queried data from more than 70,000 email addresses and phone numbers in October 2018, and once again broke privacy rules in December 2019 by reportedly searching for information on a job candidate, a crime victim, and potential sources.

"We can continue playing compliance whack-a-mole,” said senior Cato Institute fellow Julian Sanchez. "But at this point, it’s reasonable to ask whether this sort of large-scale collection on a ‘general warrant’ model is inherently prone to these problems in a way that resists robust and timely oversight.”

"We’ve seen this movie before," Sanchez continued. "The court wags its finger at systemic noncompliance but ultimately decides to give the FBI yet another chance."

Boasberg reportedly found that the Justice Department's national security division reported numerous incidents involving the FBI conducting several queries into Americans for criminal evidence without obtaining court permission first, which under a 2018 Congress ruling they are required to do.

At the heart of the issue is the law Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, in which the government obtains communications from tech companies for the purposes of foreign intelligence. It also aids in government investigations that look into foreign terrorism, nuclear proliferation and espionage.


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