Days before far-right President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in, President Barack Obama has expanded all intelligence agencies' access to private communications obtained via warrentless spying.
An executive order allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to share data collected via its global surveillance dragnet with all other U.S. intelligence agencies, without redacting untargeted American citizens' private information.
"The change means that far more officials will be searching through raw data," explained the New York Times, which broke the story late Thursday. The Times also shared the 23-page declassified version of the president's order.
"So information that was collected without a warrant—or indeed any involvement by a court at all—for foreign intelligence purposes with little to no privacy protections, can be accessed raw and unfiltered by domestic law enforcement agencies to prosecute Americans with no involvement in threats to national security," observed the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF).
The rules do not change the scope of the NSA's foreign-oriented surveillance dragnets, but they now permit greater unfiltered access to the massive communications databases. Nor do they apply to surveillance conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a law circumscribing the conduct and reach of surveillance aimed at people inside the United States.
Instead, the rule change applies to surveillance under a highly influential and mostly secret Reagan-era executive order, known as 12333, which sets rules governing exclusively foreign-focused intelligence collection.
"This development is very troubling for Americans' privacy," argued John Napier Tye, a state department whistleblower, to the Guardian. "Most people don't realize this, but even our purely domestic email and text messages are often stored on servers outside the United States. And the NSA has written extremely permissive rules for itself to collect data outside U.S. borders."
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"So in operations overseas, the NSA is scooping up a lot of purely domestic communications. And now, with these new rules, many different federal agencies can search and read the domestic communications of normal Americans, without any warrant or oversight from Congress or the courts," Tye said.
Indeed, Obama's executive order has set off alarm bells among privacy advocates and civil liberties groups, which are preparing for a "law and order" strongman who has called for surveillance of all Muslims, punishment for women who seek abortions, and deportation of millions of immigrants—and who has "a reputation for vindictive grudges."
"The fact that they're relaxing these privacy-protective rules just as Trump is taking the reins of the surveillance state is inexplicable to me," Nate Cardozo, an EFF attorney, told Wired. "The changes they're making today are widening the aperture for abuse to happen just as abuses are becoming more likely."
"The procedures released today allow more agencies to directly access information collected by the NSA without a warrant under procedures that are grossly inadequate," added Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel with the ACLU, in response to the rule.
"This raises serious concerns that agencies that have responsibilities such as prosecuting domestic crimes, regulating our financial policy, and enforcing our immigration laws will now have access to a wealth of personal information that could be misused," Singh Guliani said.
"Seventeen different government agencies shouldn't be rooting through Americans' emails with family members, friends, and colleagues, all without ever obtaining a warrant," Patrick Toomey, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued to the Times.
Even before Obama's latest order, civil liberties advocates have been warning that Trump is poised to inherit the largest surveillance apparatus in world history—and this is the second expansion of its powers since Trump's November election.