The DoJ IG just released an assessment of the FBI’s use of the mass data collection powers of section 215 of The Patriot Act, renewal of which is currently being debated in Congress and the report says that no case developments resulted from the use of Section 215 orders. The Inspector General said:
"As with our previous reviews, the agents we interviewed did not identify any major case developments that resulted from the use of the records obtained in response to Section 215 orders, but told us that the material produced pursuant to Section 215 orders was valuable in that it is used to support other investigative requests, develop investigative leads and corroborate other information."
To be fair, the FBI’s use of Section 215 is minimal although increasing.
Also, the national security community (the NSA and related agencies) probably issued a lot more Section 215 requests than the FBI and this report does not include data on that. Of course a request could say, as it did to Verizon, provide every single call record for these three months. One order, lots of data.
Google for example, publishes data on ranges of the number of requests they get. For the period January to June 2014 (the last period available), Google said they received less than a thousand FISA court requests covering around 15,000 accounts and less than a thousand National Security Letters covering less than a thousand accounts (see report). Google should be considered one of the larger recipients of such letters along with Facebook and Microsoft, so the fact that those numbers are small does indicate some discretion in asking for information.
The IG’s report also talked about the FBI’s efforts at data minimization, which were required as part of the 2006 Patriot Act re-authorization. Generally speaking, the IG said that the FBI was not compliant with the law, but after several reports (different years), the FBI is doing a better job.
All this was announced at a time when Congress is trying to figure out a path forward. Absent Congressional Action, the provisions of Section 215 and some other sections of the Patriot Act expire on June 1, 2015. Different groups in Congress have significantly different views on what should happen and one possibility is to kick the can down the road a few months, a technique Congress often uses.
The NSA said that if Congress had not granted them an extension of authority by today (May 22, 2015), that the NSA would begin winding down it’s Section 215 activities to make sure that they were compliant by June 1.
Congress will likely do something in the next week – before the Section 215 provisions expire. This is one of those places where big, invasive government, national security and personal privacy collide and it is unclear what the result will be.