The secret service buys location data from US citizens without guarantee

A US intelligence agency buys phone data from data brokers and skips the arrest warrant process.

According to a memo in the New York Times on Friday, the US Defense Intelligence Agency is collecting location information that includes data on US citizens without a warrant. The DIA buys the information from data brokers, which they often get from third-party apps that run on users’ phones. The memo written to Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon states that the agency has placed some restrictions on the use of location information by U.S. citizens.

The practice underscores how intelligence agencies collect location data on US residents without an arrest warrant, despite the US Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that the practice requires arrest warrants. Known as the Carpenter’s Decision, the verdict was that after the fourth change, investigators must clear a higher bar before they can access data that can create a timeline of every move a person makes.

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« The DIA is not interpreting the carpenter’s decision to request an arrest warrant confirming the purchase or use of commercially available data for intelligence purposes, » the agency said in its memo. The DIA, which exists to gather information about foreign military personnel for US defense efforts, did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the memo, U.S. and overseas data is mixed up in the location information the agency buys. The agency said it stores data on US citizens in a separate database, which requires special permission to access. It has been accessed five times in the past two and a half years.

In November, Vice reported that the U.S. Special Operations Command had purchased location data collected by a third-party data broker from an Islamic prayer app called Muslim Pro. The app maker later said it would stop selling its users’ location data. That same month, the US Department of Homeland Security was investigated by its inspector general after Buzzfeed reported that an internal memo was collecting phone location data with no guarantee of immigration enforcement.

Wyden, a Democrat advocate for privacy rights, denied the practice in a comment on Thursday at the Capitol. Wyden called the data brokers « shabby and unregulated » and urged Avril Haines, President Joe Biden’s candidate for national security director, on the matter.

« It is especially important that the American people be informed whether the government is taking advantage of loopholes in the law and warranty obligations of the Fourth Amendment, » said Wyden.

Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney for the ACLU, said in a statement that the DIA memo reveals that more and more government agencies are ignoring the law. The ACLU has tried the Carpenter case in the Supreme Court.

« The government cannot simply buy our private data to circumvent basic constitutional protection, » said Gorski. « Congress must end this lawless practice and require the government to obtain an arrest warrant for our location data, regardless of its source. »

The secret service buys location data from US citizens without guarantee
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