NSA admits to buying Americans’ web browsing data from brokers without warrants

The National Security Agency’s director has confirmed that the agency buys Americans’ web browsing data from brokers without first obtaining warrants. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) blocked the appointment of the NSA’s inbound director Timothy Haugh until the agency answered his questions regarding its collection of Americans’ location and Internet data. Wyden said he’d been trying for three years to “publicly release the fact that the NSA is purchasing Americans’ internet records.”

In a letter dated December 11, current NSA Director Paul Nakasone confirmed to Wyden that the agency does make such purchases from brokers. “NSA acquires various types of [commercially available information] for foreign intelligence, cybersecurity, and other authorized mission purposes, to include enhancing its signals intelligence (SIGINT) and cybersecurity missions,” Nakasone wrote. “This may include information associated with electronic devices being used outside and, in certain cases, inside the United States.”

Nakasone went on to claim that the NSA “does not buy and use location data collected from phones known to be used in the United States either with or without a court order. Similarly, NSA does not buy and use location data collected from automobile telematics systems from vehicles known to be located in the United States.”

An NSA spokesperson told Reuters that the agency uses such data sparingly but that it has notable value for national security and cybersecurity purposes. “At all stages, NSA takes steps to minimize the collection of US [personal] information, to include application of technical filters,” the spokesperson said.

Wyden has called the practice unlawful. “Such records can identify Americans who are seeking help from a suicide hotline or a hotline for survivors of sexual assault or domestic abuse,” he said.

The senator urged Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to order US intelligence agencies to stop buying Americans’ private data without consent. He also asked Haines to direct intelligence agencies to “conduct an inventory of the personal data purchased by the agency about Americans, including, but not limited to, location and internet metadata.” Wyden said that any data that does not comply with Federal Trade Commission standards regarding personal data sales should be deleted.

Wyden pointed to an FTC settlement that this month banned a data broker from selling location data. The agency alleged that the information, which it claimed was sold to buyers including government contractors, “could be used to track people’s visits to sensitive locations such as medical and reproductive health clinics, places of religious worship and domestic abuse shelters.”

The FTC stated in its complaint against the broker, formerly known as X-Mode Social, that by “failing to fully inform consumers how their data would be used and that their data would be provided to government contractors for national security purposes, X-Mode failed to provide information material to consumers and did not obtain informed consent from consumers to collect and use their location data.”

The settlement was the first of its kind with a data broker. In a statement, Wyden, who has been investigating the data broker industry for several years, said he was “not aware of any company that provides such a warning to users [regarding their consent] before collecting their data.”

The issue of US federal agencies buying phone location data isn’t exactly new. In 2020, it emerged that Customs and Border Protection had been doing so. The following year, Wyden claimed the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon bought and used location data from Americans’ phones.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/nsa-admits-to-buying-americans-web-browsing-data-from-brokers-without-warrants-154904461.html?src=rss 

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