N.S.A. ‘Unmaskings’ of U.S. Identities Soared Last Year, Report Says

N.S.A. ‘Unmaskings’ of U.S. Identities Soared Last Year, Report Says

WASHINGTON — Intelligence officials asked the National Security Agency to unmask the identities of Americans in surveillance-based intelligence reports 16,721 times last year — a significant rise from a year earlier, a new report revealed on Tuesday.

But the N.S.A. also collected fewer logs of Americans’ phone calls and text messages for analysis by counterterrorism officials via a troubled system created in 2015 to replace the agency’s once-secret program for collecting domestic calling records in bulk. The law that authorizes that system, the U.S.A. Freedom Act, is set to expire at the end of this year.

The new report was an annual set of surveillance-related statistics issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Officials instituted the annual release after the 2013 leaks by the former N.S.A. contractor Edward Snowden set off a broad debate about electronic spying.

The report offered a window onto how the intelligence community is using its surveillance powers in ways that may affect Americans’ privacy — a type of information that was once a closely guarded secret, but that the agencies have been trying to be more open about in order to build and maintain public trust.

Normally, when N.S.A. analysts distribute a report to other government agencies containing information gleaned from surveillance, they black out, or mask, the identities of American citizens, permanent residents and organizations like corporations. But officials who receive those reports may ask the N.S.A. to reveal those identities if they are necessary to understand intelligence.

The N.S.A. had granted 9,529 such unmasking requests in 2017, the report said, so the number soared by about 75 percent last year.

In a briefing with reporters, Alex Joel, the office’s chief civil liberties officer, cautioned against reading too much into statistical fluctuations, but said that one factor in the surge of unmaskings was that a handful of reports in 2018 contained numerous identifiers of Americans or American businesses that malicious hackers abroad had targeted.

“That could be an important factor in explaining the number here,” Mr. Joel said.

The report also tracked how the government has been using a law known as Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which permits the N.S.A. to collect, from American companies like AT&T and Google, the international phone calls and emails of foreign targets of surveillance without a warrant — even when those people are communicating with Americans. Congress reauthorized that law last year.

The number of foreigners targeted for warrantless surveillance under that law had been rising steadily and continued to soar in 2018, the report showed. There were 164,770 targets for such warrantless surveillance, up from 129,080 in 2017.

The report also offered a window onto how the government is using information about Americans that it incidentally sweeps up without a warrant because the foreigners were talking with or about an American. The practice has been the focus of recurring debates about privacy and security.

In 2018, the report said, analysts queried material harvested from that program for information about an American 14,374 times. That was a continued decline, down from 16,924 in 2017 and 30,355 a year earlier. Those numbers referred to searches of metadata — logs showing who contacted whom, but not what they said.

The report also said F.B.I. agents opened no ordinary criminal investigations into Americans, as opposed to national security inquiries, based on Section 702 data last year. Nor did they scrutinize any information from 702 data that came up in response to queries for an American’s information when agents were working on a criminal case with no connection to foreign intelligence.

But the report did not say how many times the bureau did either of those things when agents did deem their work to have a national security link.

Because the future of the Freedom Act system for accessing logs of Americans’ phone calls and texts is in question, some of the most notable statistics concerned its use. Analysts use the system to scrutinize patterns of messages — both whom a target has contacted, and whom those contacts have in turn communicated with — to hunt for hidden associates of terrorism suspects.

In May 2018, after discovering that the Freedom Act system was sweeping up some phone and text records that the N.S.A. had no lawful basis to receive, the agency deleted hundreds of millions of logs it had gathered since 2015 and started over. It has cited technical reasons for sweeping up the information but has not fully explained them.

Earlier this year, a senior Republican congressional aide said that the N.S.A. had not been using it for months, suggesting that it has continued to cause technical headaches and raising the question of whether the Trump administration will ask Congress to extend the Freedom Act or let it expire. The N.S.A. declined to comment about that portrayal, and the report did not address the system’s status.

But in a possible sign of that turbulence, the N.S.A. obtained new orders to gather calling records surrounding just 11 targets in 2018, down from 40 in 2017, the report said.

It also disclosed that the program collected about 434 million phone and text message records last year, down from 534 million in 2017. The drop, however, was actually more significant than that: After the data purge that May, the N.S.A. re-collected much of the same data about targets whose court orders were still active. So the 434 million contain many double-counted records.

The report said that between May and December of 2018, the system had gathered logs involving about 19.4 million unique phone numbers — a figure not reported in previous years.

One other notable statistic was the number of search terms that included information about Americans that analysts used to query the Freedom Act call records database: There were 164,682 last year, the report said — a huge rise from 31,196 in 2017.

But Mr. Joel said that change was not because analysts were using their powers more expansively. Rather, it was attributable to how the agency’s systems keep track of a new search tool that permits analysts to bundle together many search terms in a single query that pings multiple databases.

If a bundle contains 20 email addresses and phone numbers, 19 of which belong to foreigners and one to an American, the entire bundle is marked as American-related. A query would then record 20 American-related search terms, artificially driving up the count, he said.

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