07/10/2013 02:23 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

Spying by the Numbers: Hundreds of Thousands Subject to Government Surveillance and No Real Protection

Thanks to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden many more people in the U.S. and worldwide are learning about extensive US government surveillance and spying. Publicly available numbers show these problems are bigger than most think and most of this spying is happening with little or no judicial oversight.

Hundreds of Thousands Subject to Government Surveillance

Hundreds of thousands of people in the US have been subject to government surveillance in each of the last few years. This is much more widespread than those in power want to admit. In the last three years alone about 5,000 requests have been granted for complete electronic surveillance authorized by the secret FISA court. The FBI has authorized another 50,000 surveillance operations with National Security Letters in the last three years. The government admits that well over 300,000 people have had their phone calls intercepted by state and federal wiretaps in the last year alone. More than 50,000 government requests for Internet information are received each year as reported by Internet providers. And, remember, these are the publicly reported numbers so you can be confident there is a whole lot more going on which has not been publicly reported.

Courts Almost Never Deny Government Requests for Surveillance

There is little to no serious oversight or accountability by the courts of this surveillance. Government spy defenders suggest the courts are looking carefully and rigorously at all this. Not true. Despite thousands of requests by the federal government to look deeply into people's lives, the secret federal FISA court turned down no requests at all in the last three years. State and federal court reports on wiretap applications document over 2,000 applications annually for surveillance authorizing the interception of hundreds of thousands of calls and emails. The courts turned down the government only two times in the most recent report. FBI national security letters do not even have to be authorized by a court at all. The lack of Congressional oversight is plain to see but the lack of any judicial review of many of these surveillance actions and the very weak oversight where courts do review should concern anyone who cares about government accountability.

Let's break down the surveillance by the authority for spying.

In FISA Court, Government Always Wins

The U.S. government has tried to say the public should not worry about government scooping up hundreds of millions of phone calls and Internet activities because no real information is disclosed unless it is authorized by what is called the FISA court. Therefore, you can trust us with this information.

The FISA Court, actually called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, is made up of ten federal judges who deliberate and decide in secret whether the government can gather and review millions of phone and Internet records. This court, though I know and respect several of its members, cannot, be considered an aggressive defender of constitutional rights and civil liberties.

Government lawyers present secret evidence in secret FISA proceedings with no defense lawyer or public or press allowed. They ask for secret orders allowing the government to secretly spy on people. Its opinions are secret. The part the public knows is a one paragraph report which is made every year of the number of applications and the number of denials by the court.

Over the last three years, the government has made 4,976 requests to the secret FISA court for permission to conduct electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes. But the really big FISA number is zero. Zero is the number of government requests to conduct electronic surveillance the FISA court has turned down in the last three years.

In 2012, the government asked for permission from the judges of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) 1,789 times to conduct electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes. Zero denials.

In 2011, the government asked 1,676 times. Zero denials.

In 2010, the government asked 1,511 times. Zero denials.

Nearly five thousand victories for those who want surveillance powers and no defeats is a record that should concern everyone who seeks to protect civil liberties.

FBI National Security Letters (NSL) Scoop Up Information Court Approval Not Needed

With a NSL letter the FBI can demand financial records from any institution from banks to casinos and phone companies and internet providers. They can be required to produce all telephone records, subscriber information, credit reports, employment information, and all email records of the target as well as the email addresses and screen names for anyone who has contacted that account. The reason is supposed to be for foreign counterintelligence. There is no requirement for court approval at all.

According to Congressional records, there have been over 50,000 of these FBI NSL requests in the last three years.

These public numbers are certainly much lower than the actual requests because they do not count the numerous times where the FBI persuades the disclosure of information without getting a NSL. Nor does it count FBI requests made just to find out who an email account belongs to.

Nor do they include the very high numbers of administrative subpoenas issued by the FBI which only require approval of a member of the local US Attorney's office.

In 2012, the FBI issued 15,229 national security letter requests for information concerning US citizens.

In 2011, the FBI made 16,511 national security letter requests.

In 2010, the FBI made 24,287 national security letter requests.

Since there is no court approval needed, there are no denials. The NSL record is even better than the FISA record at 56,027 wins and no losses for Team Surveillance.

Thousands of Wiretaps Each Impacting Over One Hundred People Authorized Two Denied

According to the latest report to Congress by the U.S. Courts, there were 2,732 applications for wiretaps submitted to all federal and to half of the state courts in 2011. Half the states did not report on their numbers, so these numbers are certainly quite much too low. Also, the term wiretap is out of date as this process currently covers providing information on conventional phone lines, cell phones, secret microphones, texts, fax, paging, and email computer transmissions.

For the year 2011, out of 2,732 applications, only two were denied. Two losses out of 2,700 tries is a comparatively poor win loss record for the surveillance folks.

On average, each wiretap intercepted the communications of 113 people, thus over three hundred thousand people had their calls intercepted.

The most prevalent reason reported for the wiretaps was drug offenses. The average length of the wiretap was 42 days. One federal wiretap in Michigan resulted in intercepting over 71,000 cellular messages extending over 202 days. A New York state wiretap intercepted 274,210 messages over 564 days.

Company Reports on Spying Show Tens of Thousands of Requests

It is well known that user accounts at Google, Apple and others contain a treasure trove of information on the customer's basic information including searches, likes and dislikes, purchases, friends, and the like. Government investigators seek this information tens of thousands times each year as the reports from the companies show.

Apple reported receiving over 4,000 government requests for information on customers in just the last six months.

Facebook reported that in a six month period ending Dec. 31, 2012, it received over 9,000 requests from government for user data on over 18,000 accounts.

Google reported it received over 15,000 requests for data by U.S. government officials in 2012 for information on over 30,000 accounts. It produced some data 88 percent of the time.

Microsoft (including Skype) reported 75,378 law enforcement requests for information on 137,424 accounts world-wide for the year 2012. Microsoft disclosed non-content information in 56,388 cases, mostly to the U.S., UK, Turkey, Germany and France. In the US, Microsoft received 11,073 requests from law enforcement for information on 24,565 accounts. Microsoft rejected 759 requests or 6.9 percent on legal grounds. Microsoft provided user content in 1544 cases and subscriber/transactional data in 7,196 cases.

Yahoo said that in the last six months of 2012 it received over 12,000 requests for user data from law enforcement.


In a democracy, transparency and public participation are critical. This is not just about "the terrorists." This is about civil liberty and government accountability. Hundreds of thousands of people are being spied upon every year by our own government's public admissions. There is little oversight by judges and even less by Congress. If the government admits this much, you can certainly assume there is more to come out. It is time to wake up. These secret subpoenas and secret courts and secret processes should be abolished or fundamentally changed. Otherwise, change the slogan on the dollar to "In Secrecy We Trust."