The National Security Agency released or “unmasked” the identities of over 16,000 “U.S. persons” referenced in intelligence reports on foreign targets to other agencies in 2018, nearly doubling the number disclosed the previous year, according to an annual report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The reports in question are based on government surveillance legally authorized through a provision in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that requires the intended target be a non-U.S. person believed to be outside of the country and expected to possess, receive or communicate foreign intelligence information. Still, the surveillance of foreigners sometimes picks up identifying information on American citizens, residents or corporations.
“We call that incidental collection,” a former NSA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told ABC News.
NSA policy generally requires that identifying information of American entities – from names to email or IP addresses -- be obscured or “masked.” But other government agencies, like the CIA or FBI, can request the information be revealed if it’s “necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess its importance” and the unmasking is approved by an NSA adjudicator, the report said.
For instance, the ex-official said, if the context of an intercept suggests the U.S. person could be involved in a terror plot or could become the victim of a cyberattack, the FBI may request the NSA unmask the individual's identifying information to investigate them, in the first place, or warn them, in the second.
Alex Joel, ODNI chief of the Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency, told ABC News that this reporting period included a few intelligence reports that contained “a large number of masked U.S. person identifiers of victims of malicious cyber activities.” Joel also noted that the statistic on unmasking reflects each time a piece of identifying information is released, making it possible for a single person or corporation to be counted more than once.
The report also shows that the number of foreigners targeted by this surveillance has steadily increased, with estimates rising from 129,080 in 2017 to 164,770 in 2018.
Using separate titles and sections within FISA, the government can conduct electronic surveillance or a physical search of a U.S. person if authorized by a court order based on probable cause; an estimated 232 U.S. persons were targeted last year, a reduction from previous years - 299 in 2017 and 336 in 2016, according to the report.
President Donald Trump has previously criticized the practice of unmasking, as well as former National Security Advisor Susan Rice for requesting the identities of Trump associates named in intelligence reports. Trump tweeted in 2018, alleging that FISA may have been used by the Obama administration to “badly surveil and abuse the Trump campaign.”
Rice has previously denied allegations that her actions were politically motivated or that she leaked any sensitive information.