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ACLU v. NSA – FOIA Lawsuit Seeking Records About the NSA’s Use of Artificial Intelligence

Status: Ongoing
Last Update: May 13, 2024

What's at Stake

The National Security Agency (NSA)—one of the country’s biggest intelligence agencies—has been rapidly developing and deploying AI, but we still know remarkably little about this transformation and its impact on civil rights and civil liberties. As the NSA increasingly integrates AI into its daily operations and some of its most profound decisions, it has left the public largely in the dark about how it is using AI and what safeguards, if any, are in place to protect everyday Americans. In March 2024, the ACLU filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act seeking the release of recently completed studies, roadmaps, and reports that show how the NSA is using AI and how those tools affect people’s privacy and civil liberties. When the government failed to release the documents sought in our FOIA request, we filed suit in April 2024 to challenge this unjustified secrecy and compel public disclosure of these documents.

Describing itself as a “leader” among U.S. intelligence agencies racing to develop and deploy AI, the NSA has been utilizing these technologies to help gather information on foreign governments, augment human language processing, comb through networks for cybersecurity threats, and even monitor its own analysts as they do their jobs. Although much of the NSA’s surveillance is aimed at people overseas, those activities increasingly ensnare the sensitive communications and data of people in the United States as well.

The NSA has been studying the effects of AI on its operations for several years. A year-and-a-half-ago, the Inspectors General at the NSA and the Department of Defense issued a joint report evaluating the NSA’s use of AI. NSA officials have also publicly lauded the completion of studies, roadmaps, and congressionally-mandated plans on the NSA’s use of AI. Despite repeated transparency pledges, the government has not released these key documents examining the impact and efficacy of the NSA’s AI tools, nor has it released records showing what safeguards for civil rights and civil liberties are in place.

The government’s lack of transparency is especially concerning given the dangers that AI systems pose for people’s civil rights and civil liberties. AI systems may amplify biases already embedded in training data or rely on flawed algorithms, and they may have higher error rates when applied to people of color and marginalized communities. For example, built-in bias or flawed intelligence algorithms at the NSA may lead to additional surveillance and investigation of individuals, exposing their lives to wide-ranging government scrutiny. In the most extreme cases, bad tips could be passed along to agencies like Department of Homeland Security or the FBI, leading to immigration consequences, watchlisting, or even wrongful arrests.

This FOIA lawsuit seeks disclosure of these pivotal records relating to the NSA’s use of AI since 2022. Without access to the requested documents, the public lacks critical information about how AI is transforming the NSA’s activities — information that is vital for a meaningful debate about how our government is utilizing powerful technologies to automate and expand NSA surveillance.

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