We all know the frustration. Conduct an internet search on anything from fishing poles to anxiety medication and, the next thing you know, you’re bombarded with ads related to your probe. But it’s not just advertising agencies collecting such data. A recent report shows that the US government is purchasing Americans’ personal and sensitive information, too. Even more alarming, there’s hardly any oversight.
Report Shows Government Lacks Oversight
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has published a report that found “[u]nchecked overreliance on commercially available information poses a threat to Americans.” Although dated January 2022, the assessment has only recently been declassified. It stated that commercially purchased data:
“[C]an reveal sensitive and intimate information about the personal attributes, private behavior, social connections, and speech of U.S. persons and non-U.S. persons. It can be misused to pry into private lives, ruin reputations, and cause emotional distress and threaten the safety of individuals. Even subject to appropriate controls, CAI [commercially available information] can increase the power of the government’s ability to peer into private lives to levels that may exceed our constitutional traditions or other social expectations.”
This can be a boon for government agencies since obtaining knowledge this way may be much easier than trying to navigate privacy laws that could prevent them from getting intel on Americans without a court order. But it’s not just Big Brother that has access to this — so do foreign actors.
Advertising agencies and the government can obtain a plethora of specifics through such consumer information as credit and purchase histories, insurance claims, employment history, medical and criminal records, voting registration, and bankruptcy details to name some of the top categories. “Data brokers do not obtain this data directly from consumers, and consumers are thus largely unaware that data brokers are,” the report explained.
And CAI also can be combined with other non-CAI data, the appraisal pointed out. For example, it quoted a December 2019 article from The New York Times: “If you own a mobile phone, its every move is logged and tracked by dozens of companies … The Times Privacy Project obtained a dataset with more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million people in the country. It was a random sample from 2016 to 2017, but it took only minutes.” The review emphasized that this was how The Times was able to track President Donald Trump’s movements, by gaining information from his Secret Service detail.
The report also provided examples of some government agencies that “have, have had, have considered, or are considering” contracts or proposals to buy personal data:
FBI: Social media alerts with ZeroFox, an external cyber security company that looks into phishing and fraud.
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA): Social media reports on individuals seeking security clearance and with LexisNexis for “retrieval of comprehensive on-line search results related to commercial due diligence from a maximum number of sources (news, company, public records, legal, regulatory, financial, and industry information),” among other things. The DIA also “provides funding to another agency that purchases commercially available geolocation metadata aggregated from smartphones.”
US Navy: Use of Sayari Analytics to get access to its database that “contains tens of thousands of previously-unidentified specific nodes, facilities and key people related to US sanctioned actors including ‘2+3’ threats to national security.”
Department of Defense Access to Janes online, which “partners with global government agencies and leading military manufacturers across the world and is at the forefront of analysis in the open-source intelligence domain,” according to Janes’ website.
US Coast Guard: Use of information with Babel Street for “Open Source Data Collection, Translation, Analysis Application.”
Treasury Department: Various offices within the agency use data from Bankers Almanac.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS): DHS described the way it uses CAI through its Office of Intelligence and Analysis:
- The Web of Science tool allows users to search academic publications and filter according to “funding sources, affiliations, co-authors, and other key terms.” It helps gain access to materials hidden behind paywalls. For example, the report cited that, using the system, “analysts have identified foreign researchers studying in the United States with previously unknown associations with their home country’s military.”
- Using CLEAR, analysts can resolve identities, and databases like CLEAR often have current location and contact information.
- Dun and Bradstreet enable DHS “to resolve private companies’ primary enterprises with their subsidiaries/affiliates and provides leads for further analysis in DHS systems and classified databases.”
The Markup analyzed a database of 650,000 audience segments from Microsoft’s ad platform Xandr. “The trove of data indicates that advertisers could also target people based on sensitive information like being ‘heavy purchasers’ of pregnancy test kits, having an interest in brain tumors, being prone to depression, visiting places of worship, or feeling ‘easily deflated’ or that they ‘get a raw deal out of life.’”
Some of the program’s categories include “Affluent Millennials” and “Dunkin Donuts Visitors.” Wolfie Christl, a privacy researcher at Cracked Labs who discovered the Xandr file, told The Markup: “I think it’s the largest piece of evidence I’ve ever seen that provides information about what I call today’s ‘distributed surveillance economy.’” Furthermore, according to the website:
“Consumers are packaged according to their location history and movements. Advertisers were offered segments that appeared to target people based on where they shop, work, and visit, including those who go to state capitol buildings, congressional offices, federal agency offices, and locations like defense contractor and gun manufacturer headquarters … Many segments were related to political beliefs, political activity, and contentious issues such as gun control, immigration, and LGBTQ rights.”
Right now, all this information can be bought by ad agencies and Big Brother. What the government does with this knowledge may be outside the legal or constitutional realm and is a concern, according to the report. At a time when presidential candidates are claiming Americans need to protect their freedom and liberties, the government is buying information on its citizens. Perhaps someone should inform the right hand of what the left hand is doing.
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