How private is your personal life? If you answered, “not very,” you would still be far from the truth. The fact is, with the invention of the internet and social media platforms, privacy is almost extinct. Some of this is because we put all of our personal information out there for the world to see. Going on vacation? Sure, let’s tell all our 300-plus friends on Facebook and broadcast it to burglars that our home will be vacant while we sip Mai Tais and catch some sun rays. But, constitutionally, by way of the Fourth Amendment, we do have a right to privacy, and according to the courts, Big Brother has been taking advantage of that.
Just in case we need a little reminder on the Fourth Amendment:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
In 2018, a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court ruling found that the FBI had been searching records that had been collected by the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance program. The now recently redacted documents say American citizens’ constitutional rights may have been violated because the FBI searched millions of records without warrants.
The NSA’s program, which has been in play since 2008 (and made known to the world by Edward Snowden in 2013), was supposed to capture communications between Americans and foreigners, but only as long as the foreigners are the main ones under scrutiny. The agency is supposed to target data once it leaves the country, but in so doing much of our domestic communication is captured as well.
An update in 2018 to the act makes it so that the FBI is required to obtain a warrant whenever it wishes to use data in connection with a criminal investigation, as that apparently hasn’t been happening. In 2017, the FBI ran approximately 3.1 million searches on American citizens and foreign nationals residing in the US, and then the NSA and CIA conducted 7,500 searches.
To make matters worse, many of the searches were not even related to ongoing criminal investigations. In fact, in one example, the agency apparently searched for data associated to 70,000 people related to the FBI, which essentially means spies were spying on each other. Another instance claims an agency contractor actually conducted a search on himself and relatives, and at other times, staff routinely searched for potential witnesses and informants who were not even involved in any criminal cases.
The FBI doesn’t appear to agree that what they are doing is considered abusing the system and refer to the actions as “fundamental misunderstandings” of the FISA. It also claimed that having to justify each warrantless search would “hinder the FBI’s ability to perform its national security and public safety missions.”
The ruling suggests that the FBI was using the NSA’s database to spy on people first to see if they wanted or needed to get a warrant to get the information they already have as well as look deeper. To most, this isn’t really surprising; there’s a reason the government is referred to as Big Brother. The deeper question is: Now that the courts have ruled and apparently found them guilty of violating the Fourth Amendment, will anything be done about it?