February 16, 2008 | By Marcia Hofmann

FOIA Document Shows Improper FBI Access to Entire Domain's Email

According to a document obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation through the Freedom of Information Act, an "apparent miscommunication" resulted in unauthorized FBI access to an entire domain's email, rather than the single email account the Bureau had permission to monitor. As Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times reports:

A technical glitch gave the F.B.I. access to the e-mail messages from an entire computer network — perhaps hundreds of accounts or more — instead of simply the lone e-mail address that was approved by a secret intelligence court as part of a national security investigation, according to an internal report of the 2006 episode.

F.B.I. officials blamed an “apparent miscommunication” with the unnamed Internet provider, which mistakenly turned over all the e-mail from a small e-mail domain for which it served as host. The records were ultimately destroyed, officials said.

Bureau officials noticed a “surge” in the e-mail activity they were monitoring and realized that the provider had mistakenly set its filtering equipment to trap far more data than a judge had actually authorized.

The episode is an unusual example of what has become a regular if little-noticed occurrence, as American officials have expanded their technological tools: government officials, or the private companies they rely on for surveillance operations, sometimes foul up their instructions about what they can and cannot collect.

The problem has received no discussion as part of the fierce debate in Congress about whether to expand the government’s wiretapping authorities and give legal immunity to private telecommunications companies that have helped in those operations.

But an intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because surveillance operations are classified, said: “It’s inevitable that these things will happen. It’s not weekly, but it’s common.”

The document was released through an EFF lawsuit against the Department of Justice for records about the FBI's misuse of National Security Letters. To learn more about EFF's open government work and FOIA litigation, click here.


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