Sep. 28, 2012 at 5:49 PM ET
The American Civil Liberties Union says the federal government's electronic surveillance of Americans has increased dramatically in recent years, based on documents it obtained from the Department of Justice through federal Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation.
The documents include the attorney general’s 2010 and 2011 reports on the use of “pen register” and “trap-and-trace” surveillance powers, the ACLU said on its blog.
"The reports show a dramatic increase in the use of these surveillance tools, which are used to gather information about telephone, email, and other Internet communications. The revelations underscore the importance of regulating and overseeing the government’s surveillance power."
(The Electronic Frontier Foundation gives a basic definition of the tools this way: "Pen registers record the phone numbers that you call, while trap-and-trace devices record the numbers that call you."
The ACLU said that 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 percent, from 23,535 in 2009 to 37,616 in 2011."
Even more startling was the "increase in the number of pen register and trap and trace orders targeting email and network communications data," the ACLU said. "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 percent between 2009 and 2011."
The increase in the use of pen register and trap and trace orders "is the latest example of the skyrocketing spying on Americans’ electronic communications," the ACLU said.
Because these surveillance powers are not used to capture telephone conversations or the bodies of emails, they are classified as “non-content” surveillance tools, as opposed to tools that collect “content,” like wiretaps. This means that the legal standard that law enforcement agencies must meet before using pen registers is lower than it is for wiretaps and other content-collecting technology.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, told NBC News in an email that "as criminals increasingly use new and more sophisticated technologies, the use of orders issued by a judge and explicitly authorized by Congress to obtain non-content information is essential for federal law enforcement officials to carry out their duty to protect the public and investigate violations of federal laws."
He also said the ACLU's statement that "federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications, and doing so without warrants" is not true.
"In every single instance cited by the ACLU in its report, a federal judge authorized the law enforcement activity," he said.
— Via CNET