Intelligence Agencies Buying Vast Amounts of Sensitive Data on Americans
Intelligence Agencies Buying Vast Amounts of Sensitive Data on Americans

By Tom Ozimek

A newly released report shows that U.S. intelligence and spy agencies have bought and stored vast amounts of information on Americans—including location, smartphone, and web browsing data—with a risk posed to their privacy and even safety.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) declassified the report and released it on June 9, following a request by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to Avril Haines, the agency’s director.

“I appreciate that DNI Haines kept her word to stand-up this review group and then to publish the results of their work,” Wyden said in a statement.

Wyden, known for his role as a Congressional watchdog on potential misuse of personal data by both commercial data brokers ad government agencies, asked Haines during her confirmation hearing to review all commercial data purchases by intelligence agencies.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines speaks during a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on May 4, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The review culminated in a report authored by an advisory panel, whose identity has been redacted.

The report represents the first known attempt by the government to carry out a comprehensive assessment of how federal agencies obtain and use commercially available data on Americans, which is often collected without their knowledge.

Growing Threat

The key takeaway from the report is that commercially available information is an increasingly powerful asset for use in intelligence—and that it poses a growing threat to privacy, individual liberties, and even personal safety.

“In a way that far fewer Americans seem to understand, and even fewer of them can avoid, CAI [commercially available information] includes information on nearly everyone that is of a type and level of sensitivity that historically could have been obtained” only by targeted intelligence gathering capabilities, such as search warrants, wiretaps, and surveillance, which must be predicated by means like court orders.

While commercially available information may be anonymous, the report warns that it’s often possible to “deanonymize” it and so identify the individuals it pertains to, including persons in the United States.

After being subjected to various types of “deanonymization” or “reidentification” treatments,  the report warns that this information could then be used to “cause harm to an individual’s reputation, emotional well-being, or physical safety.”

Further, if the data falls into the wrong hands, it could easily be used to “facilitate blackmail, stalking, harassment, and public shaming,” the report warns.

The report’s authors urged U.S. intelligence agencies to develop better policies and guardrails around the use of such data in order to address the growing threat that it poses.

‘Few Meaningful Limits’

Commercially available information “is increasingly powerful for intelligence and increasingly sensitive for individual privacy and civil liberties, and the IC therefore needs to develop more refined policies to govern its acquisition and treatment,” the report’s authors recommended.

While no specific policy recommendations were put forward, the report identified gaps, such as a lack of standards and procedures for acquiring and handling such data. It also flagged a lack of transparency, noting that the intelligence community does not even keep track of what commercially available information it buys on Americans.

“According to this report, the ODNI does not even know which federal intelligence agencies are buying Americans’ personal data,” Wyden said.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) speaks during a hearing in Washington on June 30, 2020. (Susan Walsh/Pool/Getty Images)

Unlike many other countries, in particular ones in Europe, there are no privacy or data protection laws restricting how Americans’ private information can be bought or sold.

Wyden called for stronger executive oversight of the acquisition and use of such data, while calling on Congress to establish safeguards.

“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,” Wyden said, adding that the current state of affairs means that there are “few meaningful limits on government surveillance.”

“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,” Wyden said.

The Epoch Times has reached out to ODNI with a request for comment for this story and on Wyden’s call for new legal guardrails but not receive a response by time of publication.

The Oregon senator has long been an advocate of surveillance reform. Years ago, he warned that in the absence of restrictions around the collection of personal digital data, the United States could become an “irreversible surveillance state.”

By contrast, top officials from the CIA, FBI, and NSA recently urged Congress to continue allowing the intelligence community to eavesdrop on the communications of American citizens.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns depart an event where President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., to serve as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on May 25, 2023. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Warrantless Surveillance

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 13, high-level officials from America’s spy agencies called on lawmakers to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which is one of the most controversial government surveillance programs.

“We must not forget the lessons learned from 911” Department of Justice National Security Division Assitant Attorney General Matt Olsen said during the hearing.

Olsen framed reauthorizing 702 as the “single most consequential national security decision this Congress can make.”

“The stakes cannot be higher,” he added.

Senators on the committee challenged the agencies and called for new guardrails to be imposed, including by requiring agencies to obtain warrants before searching records of U.S. citizens that are stored on the 702 databases.

“I will only support the reauthorization of section 702 If there are significant, significant reforms,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “And that means, first and foremost, addressing the warrantless surveillance of Americans in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

FISA Section 702 is a provision in U.S. law that lets agencies gather intelligence on foreign agents operating outside the United States.

A spate of violations has left the fate of the program uncertain. If Congress doesn’t reauthorize it, the program is set to expire on Dec. 31 this year.

Section 702 has been repeatedly abused by the FBI, with a FISA court-ordered report indicating that the agency relied on the law’s provisions to make more than 3.3 million illegal queries of U.S. citizens in 2021.

The FBI reportedly undertook reforms to address Section 702 abuse, with FBI Director Christopher Wray at one point saying that illegal queries decreased by 90 percent after changes were made.

However, another recently unsealed court opinion left the FBI facing renewed scrutiny and questions about its use of the program, prompting a fresh round of promises to tackle newly discovered abuses.

“As Director Christopher Wray has made clear, the errors described in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s opinion are completely unacceptable,” a senior FBI official told The Epoch Times in an earlier emailed statement.

“As a result of the audits that revealed these instances of noncompliance, the FBI changed its querying procedures to make sure these errors do not happen again,” the official added.

A recent set of measures, put in place in late 2021 and early 2022, require FBI agents to personally type out a justification for each query to access the results and for a lawyer to approve queries that target many people at once.

Joseph Lord and Petr Svab contributed to this report.

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