Civil Liberties Groups and Lawmakers Object to Government Agencies Buying Personal Data

The Department of Homeland Security is buying “huge volumes” of U.S. residents’ cellphone data and sidestepping Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable government searches and seizures, according to data compiled by the ACLU. 

DHS subagencies including Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are spending millions of dollars to buy cellphone location data sold by app makers to data brokers, the ACLU said. The civil liberties group and its New York branch filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in December 2020 to uncover the data collection by DHS. 

The records obtained by the ACLU show “the government’s attempts to wash its hands of any accountability in purchasing people’s sensitive location data when it would otherwise need a warrant,” Shreya Tewari, the Brennan fellow for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a statement. 

A DHS spokesman didn’t answer specific questions about cellphone data collection but said the agency is “committed to protecting individuals’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.” 

However, “DHS uses various forms of technology to execute its mission, including tools to support investigations related to threats to infrastructure, illegal trafficking on the dark web, cross-border transnational crime, and terrorism,” the spokesman told the Washington Examiner. “DHS leverages this technology in ways that are consistent with its authorities and the law.” 

The ACLU announcement came a day before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the government’s access to personal data. Before the hearing, 19 digital justice and civil rights groups submitted a letter calling on Congress to close the “loophole” that allows government agencies to bypass court-issued warrants and buy personal data from data brokers. 

“Data brokers gather incredibly private details like individuals’ sex, age, gender, geolocation, and health information; they can also collect internet-search histories that reveal even more sensitive information about people,” said the letter, from members of the Disinfo Defense League, which works to address online disinformation and privacy violations. “This data is accessible to any intelligence community entities with the dollars to spend for it.” Among the groups signing the letter were Access Now, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Free Press Action, and MediaJustice. 

At the hearing, several lawmakers raised concerns about U.S. agencies buying personal information from data brokers. This data collection is “plain and simple, warrantless surveillance of everyday Americans, and it may have dire consequences,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY). “Recent advances have allowed the data collection to get ahead of the laws protecting our privacy.” 

Law enforcement agencies in states that have recently limited or outlawed abortion will be able to track women who search online for abortion-related terms, then travel out of state, he said. Police may also be able to obtain data from menstrual tracking apps, he added. In addition, the FBI, ICE, and the Drug Enforcement Administration all contract with a data broker that collects data from more than 80,000 mobile phone apps, Nadler said. 

The government’s collection of data is among a series of recent attacks on civil rights, added Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH). “Never before in our history has the government known more about its citizens and had more sophisticated tools for spying on us than right now,” he said. “The law is also in many ways outdated and on the side of those doing the spying, rather than those being spied on. This is wrong, and it’s un-American.” 

Bob Goodlatte, senior policy adviser for the Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability, called the ability of government agencies to buy personal data a loophole “as big as the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building.” Government agencies “are asserting that they can flout the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for a probable cause warrant by simply buying our personal data,” Goodlatte, a former Republican congressman, said at the hearing. “In effect, the government has operationalized an extraordinarily aggressive theory of law that says the government’s ability to secretly buy information overwhelms Americans’ constitutionally and statutorily protected right to privacy.”

Reporting by The Washington Examiner.