The Newest Reforms on SIGINT Collection Still Leave Loopholes

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper this morning released a report detailing new rules aimed at reforming the way signals intelligence is collected and stored by certain members of the United States Intelligence Community (IC). The long-awaited changes follow up on an order announced by President Obama one year ago that laid out the White House’s principles governing the collection of signals intelligence. That order, commonly known as PPD-28, purports to place limits on the use of data collected in bulk and to increase privacy protections related to the data collected, regardless of nationality.

Accordingly, most of the changes presented as “new” by Clapper’s office  (ODNI) stem directly from the guidance provided in PPD-28, and so aren’t truly new. And of the biggest changes outlined in the report, there are still large exceptions that appear to allow the government to escape the restrictions with relative ease.

Here’s a quick rundown.

Retention policy for non-U.S. persons. The new rules say that the IC must now delete information about “non-U.S. persons” that’s been gathered via signals intelligence after five-years. However, there is a loophole that will let spies hold onto that information indefinitely whenever the Director of National Intelligence determines (after considering the views of the ODNI’s Civil Liberties Protection Officer) that retaining information is in the interest of national security. The new rules don’t say whether the exceptions will be directed at entire groups of people or individual surveillance targets. 

Section 215 metadata. Updates to the rules concerning the use of data collected under Section 215 of the Patriot Act includes the requirement that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (rather than authorized NSA officials) must determine spies have “reasonable, articulable suspicion” prior to query Section 215 data, outside of emergency circumstances. What qualifies as an emergency for these purposes? We don’t know.

Additionally, the IC is now limited to two “hops” in querying the database. This means that spies can only play two degrees of Kevin Bacon, instead of the previously allowed three degrees, with the contacts of anyone targeted under Section 215. The report doesn’t explain what would prevent the NSA (or other agency using the 215 databases) from getting around this limit by redesignating a phone number found in the first or second hop as a new “target,” thereby allowing the agency to continue the contact chain.

National security letters (NSLs). The report also states that the FBI’s gag orders related to NSLs expire three years after the opening of a full-blown investigation or three years after an investigation’s close, whichever is earlier. However, these expiration dates can be easily overridden by by an FBI Special Agent in Charge or a Deputy Assistant FBI Director who finds that the statutory standards for secrecy about the NSL continue to be satisfied (which at least one court has said isn’t a very high bar). This exception also doesn’t address concerns that NSL gag orders lack adequate due process protections, lack basic judicial oversight, and may violate the First Amendment.

The report also details the ODNI’s and IC’s plans for the future, including:

(1) Working with Congress to reauthorize bulk collection under Section 215.

(2) Updating agency guidelines under Executive Order 12333 “to protect the privacy and civil liberties of U.S. persons.”

(3) Producing another annual report in January 2016 on the IC’s progress in implementing signals intelligence reforms.

These plans raise more questions than they answer. Given the considerable doubts about Section 215’s effectiveness, why is the ODNI pushing for its reauthorization? And what will the ODNI consider appropriate privacy protections under Executive Order 12333? 

About the Author(s)

Megan Graham

Former Assistant Managing Editor and Security, Privacy, and Technology Fellow at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@meganmcgraham).