Just when you thought the overreach by intel agencies such as the NSA, DHS, and FBI couldn’t get any worse, it turns out it’s worse than you could ever imagine.
A recently declassified report to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines revealed that several alphabet agencies have amassed “sensitive and intimate” data on United States citizens by “flouting the law.”
The agencies have been exploiting a loophole that enables them to purchase huge caches of personal data and use it to track the locations and phones of Americans without a warrant. If the agencies purchase the information, it is considered “publicly available,” but a targeted search of a specific phone is classified under the Fourth Amendment as a “search” requiring a judge’s approval and a warrant.
While these datasets are often marketed and sold as “anonymized,” it’s easy to identify individuals by using data points and cross-referencing them. This makes tracking down groups of people at a protest, like the January 6th event, possible by tracing “smartphone locations and ad-tracking records,” according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Even worse, citizens unknowingly allow little-known data-broker companies such as Safegraph and Gravy Analytics to access their sensitive information by enabling apps on their phones, including games, navigation, social media, and even weather apps.
Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Adam Schwartz issued a stark warning about the agencies’ overreach, explaining that “This extremely sensitive information can reveal where we live and work, who we associate with, and where we worship, protest, and seek medical care.”
Schwartz went on to add, “US government agencies must not be allowed to … [buy] private information from data brokers who collect information about the precise movements of hundreds of millions of people without their knowledge or meaningful consent.”
Sean Vitka, a policy attorney for Demand Progress, a nonprofit organization, states, “This report reveals what we feared most. Intelligence agencies are flouting the law and buying information about Americans that Congress and the Supreme Court have made clear the government should not have.”
In a 2018 case, the SCOTUS upheld its decision on Carpenter v. United States, reaffirming that government agencies had no legal standing or right to get data location without a warrant, citing the Fourth Amendment’s “unreasonable search and seizure” clause.
But what is becoming disturbingly clear in recent findings is that most government agencies no longer think the Constitution applies to them and that they are allowed to operate above the law.
But it’s not just surveilling private citizens and governmental overreach that’s concerning.
In the report, the ODNI warns that most of what the government calls “publicly available information” poses a significant threat to the public. There is a difference, the report points out, between information that is publicly available and data that is for sale. The data for sale contains, per the report, information that is “more revealing, available on more people, less possible to avoid, and less well understood” than previously available datasets.
The report also points out that other companies can purchase the same data, meaning a significant potential for exploitation. The ONDI fears that the data these agencies purchase could be used to “facilitate blackmail, stalking, harassment, and public shaming” against U.S. citizens.
In March of 2023, FBI Director Christopher Wray admitted that his agency had purchased location data for millions of Americans without a warrant. During the hearing, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) questioned Wray, “Does the FBI purchase U.S. phone-geolocation information?”
Wray acknowledged that the FBI had “previously — as in the past — purchased some such information for a specific national security pilot project.” Wray was quick to clarify, “But that’s not been active for some time,” and added that the agency no longer purchases data.
“To my knowledge, we do not currently purchase commercial database information that includes location data derived from internet advertising,” Wray said. He went on to add that his agency has a court-authorized process but refused to give details regarding the process and did not specify if it was another legal loophole or a court-ordered warrant.
Contrary to Wray’s testimony, The Center for Democracy & Technology alleges that “law enforcement agencies are among the customers of some data brokers, spending millions of dollars to gain access to private sector databases which often contain very sensitive and very personal information on individuals” as recently as 2021.
Is it just a coincidence that geo-tracking was one of the factors used to identify and arrest innocent citizens at or near the January 6th protest? We’ll let you decide.