A Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) has criticised the US government for ignoring guidelines surrounding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Prism programme for domestic surveillance of web users.
FISC set out suggested regulations for the Prism programme, which spied on citizens’ emails and web use for around 10 years before being shut down in 2011.
The criticism, which comes from Judge John D. Bates, doesn’t have a date as the documents are heavily redacted, but has been made public following the declassification of materials by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)
“NSA exceeded the scope of authorised acquisition continuously during the more than [redacted] years of acquisition under these orders,” wrote Judge Bates in a 117 page document.
He added that guidelines stated that the government should only gather data on those for whom there was a reasonable suspicion that they posed a threat to national security.
“Each order authorised NSA analysts to access the acquired metadata only through queries based on validate ‘seed’ accounts, i.e. internet accounts for which there was a reasonable articulable suspicion (RAS) that they were associated with a targeted international terrorist group; for accounts by U.S. persons, RAS could not be based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment.
“As noted above, record of compliance with these rules has been poor,” wrote Judge Bates.
“Most notably, NSA generally disregarded the special rules for disseminating United States person information outside of NSA until it was ordered to report such disseminations and certify to the FISC that the required approval had been approved,” he added, suggesting that misunderstanding could have played a part in this.
“The government has provided no meaningful explanation why these violations occurred, but it seems likely that widespread ignorance of the rules was a contributing factor.”
The release of the documents is the latest attempt by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to make information about the US government’s data collection policies more transparent.
“Release of these documents reflects the Executive Branch’s continued commitment to making information about this intelligence collection program publicly available when appropriate and consistent with the national security of the United States,” said James Clapper, head of ODNI.
“Additionally, they demonstrate the extent to which the Intelligence Community kept both Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court apprised of the status of the collection program under Section 215 [of the Patriot Act],” he continued, adding that some areas have been redacted as a matter of national security.
“Some information has been redacted because these documents include discussion of matters that continue to be properly classified for national security reasons and the harm to national security would be great if disclosed.”
The information disclosed in the documents isn’t the first demonstration of FISC being critical of the US government over Prism surveillance.
Earlier this year, Yahoo won a court ruling that allowed the release of records to show how it fought against demands to hand over data under Prism as early as 2008.