Hearing shows the lack of transparency in the extent of the US government’s surveillance abuse

"We don’t actually know the scope of this collection."

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On Thursday, House lawmakers held a hearing on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) over accusations that federal agencies use the law to conduct surveillance on US citizens.

During the hearing, the heads of federal intelligence agencies were not willing to reveal how much data they collect on US citizens through Section 702. Expert witnesses were also not able to say how many can conduct the unlawful and warrantless searches enabled by Section 702.

“We don’t actually know the scope of this collection,” said US Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board Chair Sharon Bradford Franklin, who was an expert witness at the hearing.

Another expert witness, Michael Horowitz, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, said, “Compliance has been far from perfect.”

The expert witnesses said that the FBI refuses to provide estimates of US citizens’ communications that are caught up in Section 702’s database. The agency claims that it would be “infeasible” to provide an estimate.

Franklin said that the collection of US citizens data is a “recognized feature,” not an unknown error.

“To be able to identify those potential threats inside the United States is a feature that is known and recognized and not necessarily a problem,” Franklin said. There are very few restrictions on searching for US citizens’ data from the database. Franklin agreed with lawmakers that search warrants should be required before searching for data on US citizens that is stored in the Section 702 database.

Section 702 has raised concerns on both sides of the political aisle. Both sides agree that intelligence agencies use it as a loophole to surveil American citizens.

“A law designed to provide tools to collect foreign intelligence and prevent foreign terrorist attacks has been warped into a domestic intelligence tool to intercept and catalog Americans’ phone calls, text messages, emails and other electronic communications,” Arizona Republican representative Andy Biggs said. “We must consider whether this program can be reformed or if it is already beyond repair.”

Most lawmakers want the law reformed before it is reauthorized in December. However, some, like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), want it repealed.

“How about if we just get the FBI out of that business altogether?” Jordan said during the hearing.

Rep. Matt Gaetz asked Horowitz about these more than three million “backdoor searches.”

“It’s obviously concerning that there are that volume of searches and particularly concerning the error rate that was reported on in the last two years,” Horowitz said, saying that he believed the “error” rate of mistaken or wrongful searches to be “around 30%.”

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