US intelligence is buying your data – in bulk

A newly declassified report confirmed for the first time that US federal agencies are secretly acquiring vast amounts of commercially available information on Americans.

When the US government admonishes you over the use of, say, TikTok, because your data might potentially end up in the hands of the Chinese, maybe advise it to take look in the mirror.

That’s because a just-declassified report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) clearly confirms that the American government has access to it all – data from connected vehicles, web browsing information, and smartphones.

License to pry into private lives

The ODNI report, prepared in January 2022 and released in June 2023 following a request by a Democratic senator Ron Wyden, says that the data the US government purchases “clearly provides intelligence value.” But it also “raises significant issues related to privacy and civil liberties.”

The declassified report is the first public disclosure that the government is using commercially available information (CAI), generated from web-connected devices and made available by data brokers for purchase.

ODNI says that if the US government can buy the data, so can America’s adversaries and hostile nations. Of course, your elected officials can also use the information against you, in theory, and do away with legal information-gathering capabilities such as search warrants or wiretaps.

Although CAI may be “anonymized,” it’s often possible (using other CAI) to deanonymize and identify individuals, including US persons, the report states.

“It can be misused to pry into private lives, ruin reputations, and cause emotional distress and threaten the safety of individuals. Even subject to appropriate controls, CAI can increase the power of the government’s ability to peer into private lives to levels that may exceed our constitutional traditions or other social expectations,” ODNI explains.

“Mission creep can subject CAI collected for one purpose to other purposes that might raise risks beyond those originally calculated.”

No meaningful legislation

The US doesn’t have a privacy or data protection law regulating the sharing or selling of Americans’ private data. According to Senator Wyden, it’s clear that there’s a lack of oversight of how the data is obtained and used.

“The Director of National Intelligence has confirmed that the government is buying up massive amounts of Americans' private data. That there are virtually no guardrails around how the government collects this information should concern anyone who uses a smartphone or computer,” Wyden tweeted.

Of course, the ODNI report is not the final say in the matter. If the government is sued in federal court, the theory that US intelligence agencies purchase and use citizens’ private data is likely to be carefully scrutinized.

Experts – and the tabloids – are already horrified. The New York Post, for example, has concluded that “the feds can learn about any website you visited, any tweet you liked, anywhere you drove, and almost anything you purchased with a credit card.”

The newspaper also quoted Neil Richards, a Koch Distinguished Professor in Law at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who said it was “shameful” for the US to not have meaningful privacy legislation.

“Congress and other legislators have simply failed to protect our privacy, and that failure has become all the more obvious. There’s been an explosion in the amount of commercially available data about every single person in this country. And the current legal regime doesn’t restrain that,” said Richards.

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