Congress moves to crack down on feds buying Americans’ data from private brokers

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The House Judiciary Committee wants to stop the U.S. government from buying Americans’ data after the intelligence community revealed it gets information from brokers who sell details from people’s cars, phones and other devices. 

On Wednesday, the committee advanced the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act without opposition after clashing with the FBI over concerns that a slew of law enforcement and intelligence agencies are circumventing constitutional protections to invade Americans’ privacy.

Fears that the U.S. government is spying on Americans united strange bedfellows such as Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington.

“Data brokers are selling Americans’ personal information to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which are then being searched without warrants and without oversight in contrast to strict rules that prevent phone companies and social media sites from selling such information to the government,” Mr. Biggs said at a judiciary committee meeting. “This is Congress’ job to update the law and fill in gaps that arise over time.” 

The roster of federal agencies buying Americans’ data includes the FBI, IRS, Department of Homeland Security, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Mr. Biggs.

The bill that sailed through the judiciary committee would require those agencies to get a court order to acquire information from data brokers like the orders needed to obtain data from phone and tech companies. 

During a hearing last week where lawmakers scrutinized FBI Director Christopher A. Wray’s work, Rep. Zoe Lofgren pressed him for answers about whether federal investigators bought location information.

“Is the FBI purchasing location data from commercial sources without a warrant?” the California Democrat said. 

Mr. Wray replied: “This is an area that requires a little more precision and context from me to be able to answer that fully so let my staff follow back up with you so that I make sure that I don’t leave something important out.”

Ms. Lofgren said Wednesday that the FBI has not followed up.

Mr. Wray’s dodging questions rankled other lawmakers such as Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, and Ms. Jayapal. 

“The intelligence community is using the data broker loophole to justify its purchase of massive amounts of Americans’ data,” Ms. Jayapal said at Wednesday’s committee meeting. “We live in a time where our phones track everything that we do so we’re talking about information about everything: from medical and mental health, location, internet activity and more.”

The U.S. intelligence community recently disclosed some of its data harvesting in response to a request from Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, who has helped lead efforts to pass companion legislation in the Senate to what the House Judiciary Committee advanced on Wednesday. 

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said last month her team is reviewing how it uses people’s sensitive information that the government labels commercially available information or CAI.  

Ms. Haines’ team published in June the results of a January 2022 report from intelligence community advisors urging the government to rethink its acquisition of data. 

“In a way that far fewer Americans seem to understand, and even fewer of them can avoid, CAI includes information on nearly everyone that is of a type and level of sensitivity that historically could have been obtained, if at all, only through targeted (and predicated) collection, and that could be used to cause harm to an individual’s reputation, emotional well-being, or physical safety,” the report said. “The IC therefore needs to develop more refined approaches to CAI.” 

The report spotlighted some private sector contracts used by government agencies to access data, such as the FBI working with the company ZeroFox for “social media alerting” and the U.S. Navy relying on Sayari Analytics for access to a database on “U.S. sanctioned actors.”

While the House presses forward on legislation to curb government agencies’ surveillance powers, Ms. Lofgren said Congress needs to pursue a broader overhaul to safeguard Americans’ privacy. 

“I’m hoping that we will be able to mark up something that goes even farther than this later in this year and I’m working with the Senate so that we will have bipartisan and bicameral support so that this measure can actually become law,” Ms. Lofgren said. 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio said his fellow Republicans were eager for the same thing and were also working with the Senate to yield legislation that curtails the government back-door snooping.

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