United States The Federal Bureau of Investigation has admitted for the first time that it purchased US location data rather than obtaining a warrant. While the practice of buying people’s location data has become increasingly common since the US Supreme Court limited the government’s ability to unwarrantably track Americans’ phones nearly five years ago , the FBI had never disclosed having made such purchases.
The disclosure came today during a US Senate hearing on global threats attended by five of the country’s intelligence chiefs. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, posed the question of the bureau’s use of commercial data to its director, Christopher Wray: “Does the FBI buy US phone geolocation information?” Wray said his agency doesn’t currently do this, but he acknowledged it has in the past. It also limited its response to data companies collected specifically for advertising purposes.
“To my knowledge, we do not currently purchase commercial database information that includes location data derived from Internet advertising,” Wray said. “I understand that we had previously, as in the past, purchased such information for a specific national security pilot project. But it hasn’t been active for some time. He added that the bureau now relies on a “court-authorized process” to obtain business location data.
It is not immediately clear whether Wray was referring to a warrant, that is, an order signed by a judge reasonably convinced that a crime has been committed, or some other legal device. Wray also did not indicate what motivated the FBI to end the practice.
In his mark Carpenter v. UNITED STATES decision, the Supreme Court ruled that government agencies accessing historical location data without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches. But the decision has been interpreted narrowly. Privacy advocates say the decision left open a glaring “loophole” that allows the government to simply buy anything it cannot legally obtain otherwise. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Defense Intelligence Agency are among the list of federal agencies known to have taken advantage of this loophole.
The Department of Homeland Security, for its part, is reported having bought the geolocations of millions of Americans from private marketing companies. In this case, the data came from a range of deceptively benign sources, such as mobile games and weather apps. Beyond the federal government, state and local authorities are known to acquire software which feeds on cell phone tracking data.
Asked during the Senate hearing whether the FBI would resume the practice of buying location data, Wray replied, “We have no plans to change that, at this time.”
Sean Vitka, a political lawyer at Demand Progress, a nonprofit focused on national security and privacy reform, said the FBI needed to be more open about procurement, calling Wray’s admission a ” horrifying” in its implications. “The public needs to know who greenlighted this purchase, why, and what other agencies have done or are trying to do the same,” he said, adding that Congress should also ban the practice altogether.