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The Justice Department’s use of electronic surveillance tools to monitor Americans communications, particularly online, has exploded over the past few years, according to a short report released by the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday. (Image: securitymanagement.com)

ACLU: Docs Reveal "Exponential" Growth of Domestic Spying

New Justice Department documents show huge increase in warrantless electronic surveillance

Common Dreams staff

The release of new Department of Justice documents obtained by the ACLU reveal that federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications, and doing so without warrants, sufficient oversight, or meaningful accountability.

Though there is a long history of legal (and not so legal) surveillance by federal and local authorities, the new documents—released by the DOJ following Freedom of Information Act requests by the ACLU and presented in this report—show that under the Obama administration, the rate of surveillance has risen "exponentially" in many key areas, including information gathered from telephone, email, and other Internet communications.

Electronic Surveillance Is Sharply on the Rise

The DOJ documents reveal an enormous increase in the Justice Department’s use of pen register and trap and trace surveillance.

'Pen register and trap and trace devices' allow agencies to collect incoming and outgoing data from personal networks like phone lines or email exchanges. Twenty years ago performing this kind of surveillance required physical devices that attached to telephone lines in order to covertly record the incoming and outgoing numbers dialed. But today, as the ACLU explains with concern, such operations require no special equipment on the part of law enforcement agencies because "interception capabilities are built into phone companies’ call-routing hardware."

As the chart below shows, between 2009 and 2011 the combined number of original orders for pen registers and trap and trace devices used to spy on phones increased by 60%, from 23,535 in 2009 to 37,616 in 2011.

During that same time period, the number of people whose telephones were the subject of pen register and trap and trace surveillance more than tripled. In fact, more people were subjected to pen register and trap and trace surveillance in the past two years than in the entire previous decade.

During the past two years, there has also been an increase in the number of pen register and trap and trace orders targeting email and network communications data. While this type of Internet surveillance tool remains relatively rare, its use is increasing exponentially. The number of authorizations the Justice Department received to use these devices on individuals’ email and network data increased 361% between 2009 and 2011.

The sharp increases are the latest example of the skyrocketing spying on Americans’ electronic communications, says the ACLU. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that cellphone carriers received 1.3 million demands for subscriber information in 2011 alone. And an ACLU public records project revealed that large and small police departments around the country are engaging in cell phone location tracking.

Though the report contains valuable and useful information for the public, the ACLU acknowledged that there is still much they don't know about the level and manner of the government's growing surveillance operations.

"Because the existing reporting requirements apply only to surveillance performed by the Department of Justice," said the ACLU, "we have no idea of how or to what extent these surveillance powers are being used by other law enforcement agencies, such as the Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or state and local police. As a result, the reports likely reveal only a small portion of the use of this surveillance power."

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