The US intelligence community is reportedly slated to reveal an estimate of the number of Americans, whose online communications and activities have been under government surveillance. The monitoring was part of the comprehensive surveillance programs intended to keep an eye on foreigners. The disclosures are expected to be made public as early as January, according to a report.
The estimate was reportedly requested by members of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee and is slated to come as Congress begins deliberating the possibility of reforming current surveillance authority, known as Section 702, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The provision was added in 2008 and has been widely criticised by some as it provided intelligence agencies to conduct back-door, warrantless surveillance of citizens.
"The timely production of this information is incredibly important to informed debate on Section 702 in the next Congress— and, without it, even those of us inclined to support reauthorization would have reason for concern," reads a letter signed by 11 lawmakers, all members of the House Judiciary Committee, Reuters reported.
The letter was reportedly sent to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on 16 December. Clapper's office has confirmed that it has received the letter but refrained from providing further comment on the mater.
The letter allegedly also reveals that Clapper's office and NSA officials have already briefed members of the Congress on how the intelligence community intends to acquiesce with the disclosure request.
The letter was signed by Republicans James Sensenbrenner, Darrell Issa, Ted Poe and Jason Chaffetz, in addition to Democrats John Conyers, Jerrold Nadler, Zoe Lofgren, Hank Johnson, Ted Deutch, Suzan DelBene and David Cicilline.
What is Section 702?
Section 702, which is set to expire on 31 December 2017, powered two key online surveillance programs called Prism and Upstream. Edward Snowden's NSA leaks disclosed the details of the extent of the US government's surveillance powers, making public the scope of programs like Prism.
The US government has long maintained that calculating the number of Americans exposed to Section 702 surveillance may not be technically possible and could possibly require further intrusions of privacy, that exceed the scale of those already implemented by surveillance programs.
Prism collects communication data from tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and others, monitoring messaging data sent to and from foreign surveillance targets. Upstream allowed the NSA to freely monitor web traffic flow within the US and conduct specific searches with particular terms associated with a given target.
Clapper, who is about to leave office in January, indicated in April that contrary to the government's claims, providing an estimate of US citizens monitored under Section 702 may be possible. He however, defended the law, deeming it as "a prolific producer of critical intelligence."