It was a "technical glitch" or "apparent miscommunication" that resulted in an unnamed ISP turning over to the FBI huge quantities of users' email -- far more than a judge approved. A FISA court approved the release of email from a single email account, but due to "miscommunication" the ISP gave the FBI access to email from an entire network -- hundreds of accounts, according to the New York Times.
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.
This episode may be unusual in scope but it's not in quantity. A 2006 report by the Justice Dept. IG found 100-plus violations of the FISA law, but many of them were "technical and inadvertant," the Times said.
The problem of overproduction is particularly common, F.B.I. officials said. In testimony before Congress in March 2007 regarding abuses of national security letters, Valerie E. Caproni, the bureau’s general counsel, said that in one small sample, 10 out of 20 violations were a result of “third-party error,” in which a private company “provided the F.B.I. information we did not seek.”
This episode was revealed as part of discovery in a suit brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF lawyer Marcia Hofmann said the episode raised new and troubling questions about the technical controls the FBI uses to guard against third-party error.
“How do we know what the F.B.I. does with all these documents when a problem like this comes up?”