NSA finally admits to spying on Americans by purchasing sensitive data

The National Security Agency (NSA) has admitted to buying records from data brokers detailing which websites and apps Americans use, US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) revealed Thursday.

This news follows Wyden’s push last year that forced the FBI to admit that it was also buying Americans’ sensitive data. Now, the senator is calling on all intelligence agencies to “stop buying personal data from Americans that has been obtained illegally by data brokers.”

“The US government should not be funding and legitimizing a shady industry whose flagrant violations of Americans’ privacy are not just unethical but illegal,” Wyden said in a letter to Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines. “To that end, I request that you adopt a policy that, going forward,” intelligence agencies “may only purchase data about Americans that meets the standard for legal data sales established by the FTC.”

Wyden suggested that the intelligence community might be helping data brokers violate an FTC order requiring that Americans are provided “clear and conspicuous” disclosures and give informed consent before their data can be sold to third parties. In the seven years that Wyden has been investigating data brokers, he said that he has not been made “aware of any company that provides such a warning to users before collecting their data.”

The FTC’s order came after reaching a settlement with a data broker called X-Mode, which admitted to selling sensitive location data without user consent and even to selling data after users revoked consent.

In his letter, Wyden referred to this order as the FTC outlining “new rules,” but that’s not exactly what happened. Instead of issuing rules, FTC settlements often serve as “common law,” signaling to marketplaces which practices violate laws like the FTC Act.

According to the FTC’s analysis of the order on its site, X-Mode violated the FTC Act by “unfairly selling sensitive data, unfairly failing to honor consumers’ privacy choices, unfairly collecting and using consumer location data, unfairly collecting and using consumer location data without consent verification, unfairly categorizing consumers based on sensitive characteristics for marketing purposes, deceptively failing to disclose use of location data, and providing the means and instrumentalities to engage in deceptive acts or practices.”

The FTC declined to comment on whether the order also applies to data purchases by intelligence agencies. In defining “location data,” the FTC order seems to carve out exceptions for any data collected outside the US and used for either “security purposes” or “national security purposes conducted by federal agencies or other federal entities.”

NSA must purge data, Wyden says

NSA officials told Wyden that not only is the intelligence agency purchasing data on Americans located in the US but that it also bought Americans’ Internet metadata.

Wyden warned that the former “can reveal sensitive, private information about a person based on where they go on the Internet, including visiting websites related to mental health resources, resources for survivors of sexual assault or domestic abuse, or visiting a telehealth provider who focuses on birth control or abortion medication.” And the latter “can be equally sensitive.”

To fix the problem, Wyden wants intelligence communities to agree to inventory and then “promptly” purge the data that they allegedly illegally collected on Americans without a warrant. Wyden said that this process has allowed agencies like the NSA and the FBI “in effect” to use “their credit card to circumvent the Fourth Amendment.”

X-Mode’s practices, the FTC said, were likely to cause “substantial injury to consumers that are not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition and are not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves.” Wyden’s spokesperson, Keith Chu, told Ars that “the data brokers selling Internet records to the government appear to engage in nearly identical conduct” to X-Mode.

The FTC’s order also indicates “that Americans must be told and agree to their data being sold to ‘government contractors for national security purposes’ for the practice to be allowed,” Wyden said.

DoD defends shady data broker dealings

In response to Wyden’s letter to Haines, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence & Security, Ronald Moultrie, said that the Department of Defense (DoD) “adheres to high standards of privacy and civil liberties protections” when buying Americans’ location data. He also said that he was “not aware of any requirement in US law or judicial opinion” forcing the DoD to “obtain a court order in order to acquire, access, or use” commercially available information that “is equally available for purchase to foreign adversaries, US companies, and private persons as it is to the US government.”

In another response to Wyden, NSA leader General Paul Nakasone told Wyden that the “NSA takes steps to minimize the collection of US person information” and “continues to acquire only the most useful data relevant to mission requirements.” That includes some commercially available information on Americans “where one side of the communications is a US Internet Protocol address and the other is located abroad,” data which Nakasone said is “critical to protecting the US Defense Industrial Base” that sustains military weapons systems.

While the FTC has so far cracked down on a few data brokers, Wyden believes that the shady practice of selling data without Americans’ informed consent is an “industry-wide” problem in need of regulation. Rather than being a customer in this sketchy marketplace, intelligence agencies should stop funding companies allegedly guilty of what the FTC has described as “intrusive” and “unchecked” surveillance of Americans, Wyden said.

According to Moultrie, DNI Haines decides what information sources are “relevant and appropriate” to aid intelligence agencies.

But Wyden believes that Americans should have the opportunity to opt out of consenting to such invasive, secretive data collection. He said that by purchasing data from shady brokers, US intelligence agencies have helped create a world where consumers have no opportunity to consent to intrusive tracking.

“The secrecy around data purchases was amplified because intelligence agencies have sought to keep the American people in the dark,” Wyden told Haines.

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