America The Federal Bureau of Investigation has admitted for the first time to buying U.S. location data instead of obtaining a warrant. While the practice of buying people’s location data has been on the rise since the US Supreme Court strengthened the warrantless surveillance of Americans’ phones five years ago, the FBI has never made such a purchase.
This was announced today at the United States Senate’s hearing on international threats, which was attended by five of the country’s intelligence chiefs. Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, asked Director Christopher Wray about the bureau’s use of commercial data: “Should the FBI buy the geographic data of America’s phones?” They asked a question. Rye acknowledged that the agency is not currently doing this, but has in the past. Limited response to information companies collect specifically for advertising purposes.
“To my knowledge, we currently do not purchase business database information that includes location information from Internet advertising,” Wray said. “I understand that we have previously—as in the past—purchased some information for a certain national security pilot project. But this has been inactive for some time. He added that the bureau now relies on “court-approved process” to obtain location information from companies.
It was not immediately clear whether a warrant—an order signed by a judge who reasonably believes a crime has been committed—or some other legal instrument. Wray also did not say why the FBI stopped the operation.
In its landmark Carpenter v. United States The Supreme Court’s decision said government agencies that obtain historic site information without a warrant are violating the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches. But the verdict was interpreted a little differently. Privacy advocates say the ruling creates a loophole that allows the government to easily buy things it can’t legally obtain. The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Defense Intelligence Agency are among the federal agencies known to have exploited the loophole.
The Department of Homeland Security has reportedly bought the geolocation of millions of Americans from private marketplaces. The data comes from deceptively good sources like mobile games and weather apps. Beyond the federal government, state and local authorities are known to have software that feeds them cell phone tracking data.
Asked during a Senate hearing whether the FBI would resume its practice of buying location data, Ray said, “We have no plans to change that at this time.”
Sean Vitka, a policy attorney at Demand Progress, a nonprofit focused on national security and privacy reform, called Wray’s admission “appalling” in his opinion that the FBI should be more forthcoming about the purchases. “The public needs to know who authorized this purchase, why and what other agencies have done or are trying to do the same,” he said, adding that Congress should act to ban the practice entirely.