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U.S. Intelligence Agencies are Buying Americans’ Personal Data from 'Private' Companies

U.S. Intelligence Agencies are Buying Americans’ Personal Data from Private Companies

June 16, 2023 (Updated): U.S. government agencies are reportedly buying vast amounts of sensitive data on Americans from private sources, according to a recently released declassified report (pdf).

Private data collection services have gathered commercially available information (CAI) over the years, including highly-revealing data on millions of American citizens, reported The Wall Street Journal.

These data brokers are able to carry out the same types of surveillance techniques on particular individuals for commercial use that federal agencies could only normally gather with proper authorization. The news comes after FBI Director Christopher Wray admitted to the Senate in March that his agency bought precise geolocation data from mobile phone services for warrantless tracking.

Intelligence Agencies Admit Using Private Data

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence admitted in the report, written in January 2022, that private data purchased by the federal government had provided a valuable stream of intelligence on unsuspecting citizens.

“In a way that far fewer Americans seem to understand, and even fewer of them can avoid, CAI includes information on nearly everyone that is of a type and level of sensitivity that historically could have been obtained, if at all, only through targeted (and predicated) collection,” the report states.

The report was commissioned by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines after Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) requested that the domestic intelligence services publicize how they used commercially available data on citizens.

The U.S. intelligence community has long been restricted on paper from secretly surveilling Americans without judicial oversight, after Congress passed safeguards in the 1970s. Since 2001, the government has been increasingly willing to bend the rules in gathering information on U.S. citizens.

Intelligence and law enforcement agencies generally consider commercially available information as “open source” material and its collection does not require any special authorization.

Many people are totally unaware that privately collected data online is being resold to the authorities. Private data collection firms have expanded their focus from merely collecting basic personal data to gathering a wider swath of information from smartphone apps, social media, car registrations, and location trackers on devices.

These firms claim that the data is sold to the government by vendors who strip the material of personal information like names and addresses, prior to delivery.

Any member of the public is able to purchase the data, as laws on personal privacy are barely regulated in the United States and Congress has yet to pass a strong national privacy law.

However, critics say that GPS data on phones or cars can reveal the name of an individual due to close proximity to the user.

Regular internet use can also allow agencies to review browsing behavior to reveal personal information about a subject.

Report May Lead to Stricter Oversight

This latest revelation is the first known attempt by the government to comprehensively review how federal agencies acquire, share, and use commercially available data gathered without the knowledge of most Americans.

The report acknowledged that the government has the ability to use commercial data to single out particular individuals and that the collection of sensitive information by federal agencies is barely addressed.

There have been “inconsistencies between how different [intelligence community] elements define and treat” data collected from commercial sources, said the report.

Some federal intelligence agencies attempt to treat the data as foreign sourced, to legally evade strict privacy protection laws.

The report said that such information could “cause harm to an individual’s reputation, emotional well-being, or physical safety” and requested that the intelligence community strengthen its safeguards over the acquisition of collected personal data from these sources. Wyden said that the information in the report makes it clear that there is need for stronger oversight and transparency from the government agencies buying the data.

“If the government can buy its way around Fourth Amendment due-process, there will be few meaningful limits on government surveillance,” Wyden said in a statement reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The congressman also called for legislation to clarify rules on government purchases of data and rein in the companies that collect and sell citizens’ personal information to prevent it from being used by foreign actors.


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