A report that was just declassified this week confirms what many people have long been saying, and fearing – that law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the United States have been purchasing the personal data about American citizens.
The report, which was compiled by a panel that was working to advise the Director of National Intelligence, was actually completed back in January of 2022. It was classified, though, which meant that the information contained within couldn’t be released to the public.
That was until Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon requested earlier this month that the report be declassified so the public could learn more. Now, with this information out there, it has raised significant alarm from people on both sides of the political aisle regarding civil liberties and general privacy.
The now declassified report showed how agencies in the United States have participated in purchasing massive datasets about Americans.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the Internal Revenue Service ended up purchasing the access to one particular dataset that stored location data from millions of phones owned by Americans. The agency did this, according to the report, to try to find people who were cheating on their taxes.
Other agencies such as Homeland Security purchased similar location data from phones for purposes related to immigration.
The report stated, in part:
“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 that is of a type and level of sensitivity that historically could have been obtained” by other gathering capabilities that intelligence agencies have, which includes surveillance, wiretaps and search warrants.
Once this report was made public, Wyden released a statement expressing his displeasure – to say the least – that the federal government not only didn’t protect Americans’ privacy rights, but apparently completely violated them. He said:
“This review shows the government’s existing policies have failed to provide essential safeguards for Americans’ privacy, or oversight of how agencies buy and use personal data. According to this report, the ODNI does not even know which federal intelligence agencies are buying Americans’ personal data.”
The declassified report confirmed that “the detailed movements and associations of individuals and groups, revealing political, religious, travel and speech activities” ultimately could be used to “identify every person who attended a protest or rally based on their smartphone location or ad-tracking records.”
As the report further stated:
“In the wrong hands, sensitive insights gained through [commercially available information] could facilitate blackmail, stalking, harassment and public shaming.”
In light of the report, Wyden said that legislation needed to be crafted that would prevent federal agencies from collecting Americans’ personal data – as they have been here – without having a legitimate legal cause for doing so.
His statement read:
“Congress needs to pass legislation to put guardrails around government purchases, to rein in private companies that collect and sell this data, and keep Americans’ personal information out of the hands of our adversaries.”