The FISC is made up of a rotating body of 11 federal judges (plus three who sit on the Court of Review). Since its inception in 1978, the court has approved over 30,000 warrants for private users’ telecommunications and Internet data. It has denied only a handful.
According to Gawker, which based its reporting on the judges’ mandatory financial disclosures, some of the judges currently serving on the court have investments in AT&T and Verizon, among other telecoms.
Both companies have been implicated in sharing their customers’ data with the NSA, according to documents leaked by former intelligence worker Edward Snowden as well as previous whistleblowers.
In 2006, former AT&T employee Mark Klein revealed that the NSA had spliced directly into the fibre optic Internet cables at the company’s San Francisco office. It has since been leaked by Snowden that the agency has similar deals with telecoms around the globe.
As Gawker pointed out, it isn’t clear whether any FISC judges have recused themselves, as the court operates in secret. And furthermore, the judges’ investments in massive—and lucrative—telecom companies doesn’t by any means imply these judges are corrupt.
However, the disclosures do illustrate the ways in which judges’ accountability for potential conflicts of interest are limited by the secretive nature of the surveillance court.
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