“Nightmare Scenario”: US Government Has Been Secretly Stockpiling Dirt On Americans Via Data Brokers

“Nightmare Scenario”: US Government Has Been Secretly Stockpiling Dirt On Americans Via Data Brokers
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The US Government has been purchasing troves of information on American citizens from 3rd party data providers, according to Wired, which cites privacy advocates who say this constitutes a “nightmare scenario.”

The United States government has been secretly amassing a “large amount” of “sensitive and intimate information” on its own citizens, a group of senior advisers informed Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, more than a year ago. 

The size and scope of the government effort to accumulate data revealing the minute details of Americans’ lives are described soberly and at length by the director’s own panel of experts in a newly declassified report. Haines had first tasked her advisers in late 2021 with untangling a web of secretive business arrangements between commercial data brokers and US intelligence community members. -Wired

“This report reveals what we feared most,” according to attorney Sean Vitka of the Demand Progress nonprofit. “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.”

The government has been using ‘craven interpretations of aging laws’ to bypass privacy rights, as prosecutors have increasingly ignored limits traditionally imposed on domestic surveillance.

I’ve been warning for years that if using a credit card to buy an American’s personal information voids their Fourth Amendment rights, then traditional checks and balances for government surveillance will crumble,” according to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).

During a March 8 hearing, Wyden pressed Haines to release the panel’s report – after Haines said it should “absolutely” be read by the public. On Friday, that’s exactly what happened after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released it amid a battle with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) over various related documents.

“This report makes it clear that the government continues to think it can buy its way out of constitutional protections using taxpayers’ own money,” said EPIC law fellow, Chris Baumohl. “Congress must tackle the government’s data broker pipeline this year, before it considers any reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” he said (referring to the ongoing political fight over the so-called “crown jewel” of US surveillance, per Wired).

The ODNI’s own panel of advisers makes clear that the government’s static interpretations of what constitutes “publicly available information” poses a significant threat to the public. The advisers decry existing policies that automatically conflate, in the first place, being able to buy information with it being considered “public.” The information being commercially sold about Americans today is “more revealing, available on more people (in bulk), less possible to avoid, and less well understood” than that which is traditionally thought of as being “publicly available.”

Perhaps most controversially, the report states that the government believes it can “persistently” track the phones of “millions of Americans” without a warrant, so long as it pays for the information. Were the government to simply demand access to a device’s location instead, it would be considered a Fourth Amendment “search” and would require a judge’s sign-off. But because companies are willing to sell the information—not only to the US government but to other companies as well—the government considers it “publicly available” and therefore asserts that it “can purchase it.” -Wired

What’s more, the report notes that it’s relatively easy to “deanonymize and identify individuals” based on data that was originally been anonymized prior to its commercial sale. According to the report, the data can do things like “identify every person who attended a protest or rally based on their smartphone location or ad-tracking records,” posing serious civil liberty concerns over how “large quantities of nominally ‘public’ information can result in sensitive aggregations.”

The report goes on to say that in times past, access to sensitive information about a person was part of a “targeted” and “predicated” investigation. That’s no longer the case.

“Today, in a way that far fewer Americans seem to understand, and even fewer of them can avoid, [commercially available information] includes information on nearly everyone,” it reads, adding that both the “volume and sensitivity” of information available for the government to purchase has exploded in recent years thanks to “location-tracking and other features of smartphones” as well as the “advertising-based monetization model” that underpins much of the internet.

According to the ODNI, this data “in the wrong hands” could be used against Americans “facilitate blackmail, stalking, harassment, and public shaming” – all offenses that have been committed by intelligence agencies and the White House in the past.

The government would never have been permitted to compel billions of people to carry location tracking devices on their persons at all times, to log and track most of their social interactions, or to keep flawless records of all their reading habits. Yet smartphones, connected cars, web tracking technologies, the Internet of Things, and other innovations have had this effect without government participation,” reads the report.

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