A newly declassified government report confirms that U. S. intelligence and spy agencies purchase vast amounts of commercially available information on Americans, including data from connected vehicles, web browsing data, and smartphones.
The report, which was dated January 2022 and released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on Friday, following a request by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), states that the data purchased by the government “clearly provides intelligence value” but also “raises significant issues related to privacy and civil liberties.
”The report states that “[commercially available information] includes information on nearly everyone that is of a type and level of sensitivity that historically could have been obtained” by other intelligence gathering capabilities, such as search warrants, wiretaps, and surveillance. However, the report notes that “in a way that far fewer Americans seem to understand, and even fewer of them can avoid,” this information is now readily available to anyone with a credit card.
According to the report, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) does not even know which federal intelligence agencies are buying Americans’ personal data, said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore. ). The report corroborates a stream of media reports that found U. S. government agencies were buying huge datasets on Americans.
For example, the Internal Revenue Service bought access to a huge database storing the location data of millions of Americans’ phones to try to catch tax cheats, while similar phone location data was used by Homeland Security for immigration enforcement.
Although commercially available data is generally sold in bulk, often millions of data points at a time, the ODNI’s report warns that it can be easily deanonymized to identify individuals, including Americans.
For example, location data 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 speech activities,” the report says.
This could include identifying every person who attended a protest or rally based on their smartphone location or ad-tracking records.
Senator Ron Wyden called on Congress to pass legislation that would “put guardrails around government purchases of private data, rein in the companies that collect and sell this data, and keep Americans’ personal information out of the hands of our adversaries. ”