The FBI Finally Admits It Bought Location Data About Americans, Terrifying Experts

in great shape , FBI Director Christopher Wray, left, and National Security Agency Director General Paul Nakasone, testify during a Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on threats around the world, Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

on a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Yesterday, FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed for the first time that the agency has previously purchased location data on US citizens without obtaining a warrant. Wired reported,

The revelation, which has prompted privacy advocates Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to ask Wray directly, “Does the FBI buy US phone-geolocation information?” Ray’s response dodges the question, but provides a rare insight into how the FBI has used location data to surveil Americans without any court oversight.

“To my knowledge, we do not currently purchase commercial database information that includes location data obtained from Internet advertising,” Ray said. “I understand that we have previously – as in the past – procured some such information for a specific national security pilot project. But it has not been active for some time.

Americans are protected against unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment, and the Supreme Court has said that government agencies accessing location data without a warrant can be considered a violation of Fourth Amendment rights. But privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have found consistent evidence that federal agencies, including the fbihave relied on legal loopholes Continue buying location data which the agencies may not otherwise be able to access legally.

During the hearing, Wray said the FBI does not currently buy location data and has “no plans to change that” right now. Instead, the FBI has a “court-authorized process” to seize the data, which may or may not be easier than obtaining a warrant. Ray didn’t specify how this process works.

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The FBI and EFF did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment. [Update: Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Adam Schwartz told Ars, “US government agencies must not be allowed to do an end run around the Fourth Amendment by buying private information from data brokers who collect information about the precise movements of hundreds of millions of people without their knowledge or meaningful consent. This extremely sensitive information can reveal where we live and work, who we associate with, and where we worship, protest, and seek medical care.” Demand Progress policy attorney Sean Vitka told Ars that there is “no sense of the scale” of how widely location data is used by government agencies, noting that “people like Senator Wyden have been asking the intelligence agencies to be transparent, and they have absolutely failed.”]

Fed purchasing location data remains a privacy concern

Ray’s comments come after years of investigation into federal agencies’ secret location data collection. Last year, the EFF reported that over the years, “data brokers and federal military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have formed a vast, covert partnership to surveil the movements of millions of people.”

The data Ray pointed to — commercial databases that include data collected for online advertising — is only a small subset of the location data out there. Mobile devices can be used to track location data, and the EFF found that popular weather, coupon and navigation apps also collected location data that has been used by federal agencies to monitor US citizens. In 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported That the Department of Homeland Security bought location data on millions of Americans from data brokers like Ventel. More recently, the EFF revealed that Venntel increasingly appears to be a single location data source. secret warrantless local police effort,

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No federal law provides a meaningful guarantee of online privacy in the US. To address privacy concerns, Congress has sought to pass new legislation for decades, but no bill has made it through either house, and no bill has been prepared to eliminate the risk of officials buying the data. has not been done. Even the US Data Privacy and Protection Act, which lawmakers from both parties consider an important step, does not prevent law enforcement agencies from collecting the data, Wired noted.

Instead of focusing exclusively on law enforcement agencies’ incomplete data purchases, some privacy experts told Wired they are pushing for enforcement of the Fair Credit Report Act to force data brokers to consent to selling consumer data. This would at least ensure that citizens are aware of when sensitive data may be shared with the police.

Witka told Wired that if the FBI decides to purchase location data anytime in the future, it should be more “upfront” with details so Americans will know when the FBI considers the measure appropriate.

Suggesting that Congress should ban the FBI and other federal agencies from ever purchasing location data, Witka said Wray’s statements to the committee are “horrible” enough to warrant an investigation of the agency’s past purchases of sensitive US data. .

“The public needs to know who did this procurement, why, and what other agencies have done or are trying to do,” Vitka told Wired.

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