Government surveillance of civilians has declined in large part due to National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden's 2013 revelations, according to the latest inspector general audit of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
The report (pdf), released Thursday, which covers the department's activities from 2012 to 2014, finds that technology companies grew increasingly resistant to sharing information with the FBI after Snowden exposed the government's mass surveillance programs—and that the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved far fewer FBI requests for civilians' "business records" than it did before the revelations. The records were requested under the controversial Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the government relied on at the time to collect bulk communications data.
Between 2012 and 2014, the FISA court issued 561 orders known as National Security Letters (NSL), which subpoena records like email time stamps, senders and recipients, and other metadata without a warrant. In 2012, the court issued a nine-year high of 212 NSLs; by 2014, that had dropped to 170. By 2015, it was 142.
"Transactional records for email...were the most common type of records requested" apart from bulk data collection, the report found.
And while those numbers are still higher than they were in 2009, when the court issued only 21 NSLs, department officials credited the swift decline to the "stigma" of the revelations and tech companies' growing embrace of privacy rights—itself an outgrowth of consumer outrage over spying.
"According to an [National Security Division] Deputy Unit Chief, revelations about the NSA's bulk telephony metadata program played a role in this decline, both in terms of the stigma attached to use of Section 215 and increased resistance from providers," the report states.
However, there may be other circumstances factoring into the drop, as the government turns increasingly toward other provisions like Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to sweep up information. Section 702 allows the government to collect emails and other international electronic information as long as no U.S. citizen is specifically targeted.
The shift toward new tools as old ones fall out of favor is standard for the department, the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman writes:
Just as the 2009-era resistance to National Security Letters spurred the bureau to rely on Section 215 and the FISA court for email and other records acquisition, the justice department's national security division told the inspector general that the FBI now uses a different authority, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, for its email collection.
Barack Obama voted in favor of the measure, which became a wellspring for the NSA's PRISM program and its "upstream" siphoning of data transiting across the internet's fiberoptic backbone, while Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton voted against it. Civil libertarian groups contend that Section 702 is unconstitutionally broad. The authority is set to expire in 2017 unless it is renewed by Congress.
In the aftermath of the 2013 revelations, U.S. government officials claimed Section 215 was vital to national security and counterterrorism efforts, which the Justice Department's 2015 audit contradicted.
In response to Thursday's report, Snowden tweeted, "Turns out sunlight really is the best disinfectant."