The top spy agency in the United States has recently released a report stating that personal data belonging to Americans is being sold and has become a significant source of intelligence for the government. However, this poses a threat to privacy.
The report reveals that commercially available information (CAI) has grown to such an extent that it now replicates the outcomes of intrusive surveillance methods that were previously used in a more targeted and limited manner. The report emphasizes that CAI includes highly sensitive information on nearly everyone, which historically could have only been obtained through specific collection methods like wiretaps, cyber espionage, or physical surveillance. It highlights the fact that a large number of Americans are unaware of the extent of their data being collected and resold.
The Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, commissioned the report in response to a request from Senator Ron Wyden. It aimed to shed light on how the intelligence community utilizes commercially available data. Completed in January 2022, the report was made public last week.
This marks the first known effort by the U.S. government to comprehensively examine how federal agencies obtain, share, and utilize commercially available data sets. These datasets are often compiled without the public’s full awareness that their data is being collected and sold. Over the years, data brokers’ offerings have expanded from basic demographic and address history to encompass data generated by smartphones, apps, social media platforms, vehicles, and location trackers like fitness watches. The report points out that this level of detailed information can now harm individuals’ reputations, emotional well-being, and physical safety.
The report urges the intelligence community to develop better policies, procedures, and safeguards concerning acquiring such information. It highlights that virtually anyone can purchase this data, and the U.S. market lacks comprehensive national privacy regulations.
While vendors claim that much of the data is anonymized, privacy advocates and researchers argue that certain data, such as geolocation information from phones or cars, can often be used to infer personal identities. Similarly, browsing behavior can also reveal personal information.
Senator Wyden noted that the report revealed that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence seemed unaware of which federal intelligence agencies were purchasing Americans’ data. He emphasized the need for stronger oversight and transparency within the executive branch and legislation to establish guidelines for government purchases, regulate data brokers, and protect data from foreign adversaries. Current and former U.S. officials have stated that other countries are also believed to be acquiring commercial data sets for intelligence purposes.
Wyden warned that if the government can bypass Fourth Amendment protections, which safeguard against unreasonable searches and seizures, there will be few limitations on government surveillance. The report included a paragraph marked classified, which acknowledges the U.S. government’s ability to identify individuals from the data. It also highlighted the lack of policies addressing the collection of such information.
The report raised concerns about inconsistencies in how different intelligence community elements define and handle information collected from commercial sources. Some agencies treat the data as foreign, resulting in less robust privacy protections.
Since the 1970s, the intelligence community has been restricted from using intrusive surveillance techniques on Americans without court oversight. However, data for sale is generally considered “open source,” and its collection does not require special authorizations.