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U.S. Intelligence Community Offers a Little Insight Into Surveillance Activities

New transparency report offers some insight into government surveillance, but not much.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence

The Obama administration provided a small peek into its intelligence surveillance efforts Friday, releasing a new report on how many requests it made for information last year.

The report offers some new details about how many court orders it obtained in 2013 under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — about 1,900, along with an additional 178 requests for business records — as well as a few details about the 19,000 or so National Security Letters (which are a form of subpoena) the government sent.

The intelligence community hasn’t released this sort of data before, although some companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, have previously released reports that provide some limited insight into the number of users who are under surveillance.

Last June, President Obama ordered the intelligence community to start making more information public about government surveillance activities and the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, promised to start producing an annual report.

The report may not be particularly meaningful since intelligence officials still use vague definitions to describe data requests and the figures can’t be placed in context because we don’t have data from previous years.

For example, the report says that there was just one order under Section 702 of FISA, which was the part of the law the National Security Agency used to justify its bulk data collection program. But that one order covered an estimated 89,138 targets who could be “an individual person, a group, or an organization composed of multiple individuals or a foreign power that possesses or is likely to communicate foreign intelligence information.”

Google called the report’s release a “step in the right direction,” but also noted that there was “still more to be done,” as data is released in a different form than the one companies are required to use under a deal with the Justice Department. It also doesn’t provide a breakdown of how many targets are citizens or non-citizens, Google said.

This article originally appeared on

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