Verizon, privacy, mobile phones, browsing history, personal data
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A newly declassified report details the intelligence community’s use of commercially available information from apps and social media to surveil American citizens.

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Back in the day, if an intelligence service wanted to surveil a person, they’d need to carefully follow them around. More recently, if that person were an American, they might get a court order to be allowed to track them electronically. Now, however, they can just buy that information from the providers of any number of apps who are selling the data of their users.

That is one of the main takeaways of a newly declassified report compiled on behalf of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) last year.

Put together by an unknown outside party, the document details the intelligence community’s use of commercially available information (CAI). That term refers to the unfathomable amount of data that is now available on many Americans.

Via Facebook updates, Instagram posts, or simply by allowing apps to track their whereabouts, millions of people in the US leave breadcrumbs of information that can be purchased by anybody interested in finding out more about them.

And that includes the intelligence community.

“The volume and sensitivity of CAI have expanded in recent years mainly due to the advancement of digital technology, including location-tracking and other features of smartphones and other electronic devices, and the advertising-based monetization models that underlie many commercial offerings available on the Internet,” the report finds.

While Americans might think that they cannot be identified by some of this data, that is not true at all.

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

Therefore, this data can be used by intelligence services or law enforcement to get information on Americans without getting a court order.

“For example, under Carpenter v. United States, acquisition of persistent location information (and perhaps other detailed information) concerning one person by law enforcement from communications providers is a Fourth Amendment ‘search’ that generally requires probable cause,” the report states. “However, the same type of information on millions of Americans is openly for sale to the general public.”

This easy access to personal data, including “sensitive and intimate information” has implications regarding the privacy and civil liberties of Americans.

“Without proper controls, CAI can be misused to cause substantial harm, embarrassment, and inconvenience to US persons,” the report states.

But those controls do not exist, and neither the intelligence community nor law enforcement is known for exercising great restraint when it comes to prying into the lives of Americans. 

And privacy hawks are deeply troubled by what this report has revealed.

“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,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of the leading voices in Congress when it comes to protecting the privacy and civil liberties of Americans. “According to this report, the ODNI does not even know which federal intelligence agencies are buying Americans’ personal data.”

Wyden is calling on the executive branch to do a better job of overseeing the purchase and use of CAI, and to let the American people know how their information may be used by the government.

“If the government can buy its way around Fourth Amendment due-process, there will be few meaningful limits on government surveillance,” Wyden said.

The lawmaker noted that Congress must also get involved and “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.”


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