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Lawmakers ask National Intelligence director, ‘How many citizens have you spied on?’

James Clapper
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper
American lawmakers are getting frisky when it comes to digital frisking. In a recent letter from 14 top members of Congress (including eight Democrats and six Republicans), Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked to estimate the number of Americans affected by various surveillance techniques, including email surveillance and other forms of spying. Data espionage remains one of the few issues over which there is bipartisan concern, and the letter comes as part of an ongoing examination into potential surveillance program reforms.

“You have willingly shared information with us about the important and actionable intelligence obtained under these surveillance programs,” the letter states, penned by members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee. “Now we require your assistance in making a determination that the privacy protections in place are functioning as designed.”

Key to their request is data collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows an Internet surveillance program known as Prism to collect messaging data from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and other tech giants sent to and received from foreign surveillance targets. While defendants of the provision, which is set to expire at the end of 2017, says that American data is only collected “incidentally,” others are far more critical of the law. Indeed, some have called the provision a form of “back-door” permitting warrantless surveillance on citizens. Section 702 is just one of many laws first brought to public attention by whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

While the House has voted in favor of legislation that would necessitate a warrant before allowing officials to search data collected using these and similar methods, the Senate has not been as open to these proposals. The Obama administration has also declined to answer questions raised by various civil liberties groups on just how much data is actually being collected by way of the foreign surveillance program, noting that estimates would “require reviewing communications in a manner that would raise privacy concerns.”

But in their most recent letter to the National Intelligence Director, the House’s Judiciary Committee says that the privacy concerns raised by the preparation of an estimate of affected citizens were clearly outweighed by the privacy concerns raised by the ongoing collection of messaging data.

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