woman holding cell phone

A woman holds an iPhone.

(Photo: John Tuesday on Unsplash)

'Shocking': FBI Director Admits Agency Purchased Geolocation Data of Americans

"Congress must fix this before considering any reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act this year," said one advocate.

Privacy advocates on Wednesday said testimony from FBI Director Christopher Wray at a U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing offers the latest evidence that Congress must take action to keep the government from performing mass surveillance on people across the United States, as Wray admitted the bureau has purchased cellphone geolocation data from companies.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Wray at a hearing about national security threats whether the FBI purchases "U.S. phone geolocation information," showing the location of users.

Wray said the bureau does not currently make such purchases, but acknowledged for the first time that it "previously, as in the past, purchased some such information for a specific national security pilot project," drawing on data "derived from internet advertising."

He said the project has been inactive "for some time" but said he could only provide more information about it and the past purchase of geolocation data in a closed session with senators, adding that the FBI currently accesses "so-called ad tech location data" through "a court-authorized process."

"This is a policy decision that affects the privacy of every single person in the United States."

"I think its a very important privacy issue that [geolocation data purchases] not take place," said Wyden, an outspoken advocate for privacy rights.

Grassroots social welfare organization Demand Progress called Wray's admission "both shocking and further proof of the need for Congress to take immediate action to rein in mass surveillance."

"This is a policy decision that affects the privacy of every single person in the United States," said Sean Vitka, the group's policy counsel. "We should have the right to decide when and how our personal information is shared, but instead intelligence agencies continue to obstruct any accountability or transparency around this surveillance."

The revelation came as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is scheduled to expire at the end of the year and as Congress is expected to soon begin debating its reauthorization.

As written, the provision allows the U.S. government to conduct targeted surveillance of people in foreign countries, but intelligence agencies have also used the law to collect data on Americans.

"Congress must fix this before considering any reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act this year," said Vitka of Wray's admission.

Vitka and Fight for the Future director Evan Greer were among the critics who demanded to know "who told [Wray] buying Americans' location info from data brokers would be legal?"

Privacy advocates have long warned that the Supreme Court ruling in the 2018 case Carpenter v. United States, in which the court decided government agencies that accessed location data without a warrant were violating the Fourth Amendment, contains a loophole allowing the government to purchase data that it can't obtain legally.

"The public," Vitka told Wired, "needs to know who gave the go-ahead for this purchase, why, and what other agencies have done or are trying to do the same."

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