A new downgrade Government report confirms for the first time that US intelligence and spy agencies are buying large amounts of commercially available information about Americans, including data from connected vehicles, web browsing data and smartphones.
By the US government’s own admission, the data it buys “clearly provides intelligence value”, but “also raises significant privacy and civil liberties issues”.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has declassified and released the report dated January 2022 Friday, following a request by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to disclose how the intelligence community uses commercially available data. This type of data is generated from internet-connected devices and made available by data brokers for purchase, such as phone apps and vehicles that collect granular location data and web browsing data that track users as they browse the Internet.
The declassified report is the first public disclosure by the U.S. government revealing the risks associated with available commercial data on Americans that can be easily purchased by anyone, including adversaries and hostile nations. The United States has no privacy or data protection laws governing the sharing or sale of Americans’ private information.
“In a way that far fewer Americans seem to understand, and even fewer can avoid, (commercially available information) includes information about almost everyone who is of a type and level of sensitivity that could have been achieved historically” by other intelligence gathering. capabilities, such as search warrants, wiretapping and surveillance, the report said.
In a statement following the report’s release, Wyden said, “This review shows that existing government policies have failed to provide essential safeguards for Americans’ privacy, or to monitor how agencies buy and use personal data.
“According to this report, the ODNI doesn’t even know which federal intelligence agencies are buying Americans’ personal data,” Wyden added.
The report corroborates a stream of media reports that revealed US government agencies were buying up huge datasets on Americans. The internal revenue department purchased access to a huge database storing the location data of millions of US phones in an attempt to catch tax evaders, while similar phone location data was used by Homeland Security for immigration enforcement.
Government agencies typically must obtain a court-approved warrant to obtain Americans’ private data directly from a phone or technology company, such as private messages. But the ODNI report says that where Americans’ information — like location data — is openly for sale to the general public, US intelligence agencies can buy it. (However, this theory has yet to be tested in federal court.)
Although this data is typically sold in bulk — often millions of data points at a time — the ODNI report warns that commercially available data can be easily anonymized to identify individuals, including Americans. Location data, for example, can be used to infer where people live and work, based on where their phones and vehicles are at certain times of the day.
Commercially available information can also reveal “the detailed movements and associations of individuals and groups, revealing political, religious, travel and expressive activities”, the report says, such as being used to “identify each person who attended a protest or rally based on their smartphone location or ad tracking records.”
“In the wrong hands, sensitive information obtained through (commercially available information) could facilitate blackmail, harassment, harassment and public shaming,” the report said. The report noted that in 2021, commercially available location data collected from a gay dating app has been used to a Catholic priest, who later resigned. The report also refers to the collection and sale of location data from a Muslim prayer app to the US military.
Wyden called on Congress to pass legislation to “put safeguards around government purchases, to rein in the private companies that collect and sell this data, and to keep Americans’ personal information out of the reach of our adversaries.”