The FBI has authorized the purchase of US citizens’ location data collected by some smartphone apps. This confession angered privacy activists, especially since the office obtained that data without obtaining a judicial warrant.
The recognition came through a statement made by Christopher Wray, director of the office, during a Senate hearing on global threats. Ray confirmed that the office had previously purchased the aforementioned information for a project related to national security that he did not specify, but he claimed that the FBI had stopped this practice, and that the office was currently obtaining the data required for the investigations in an authorized manner.
This is the first time that the office has admitted to purchasing the location data of US citizens without obtaining a court order. This confirmed the suspicions of human rights associations, which have long expressed their concern about the FBI’s violation of citizens’ privacy.
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The US Supreme Court had previously ruled that government agencies’ access to US citizens’ location data without obtaining official permission constitutes a violation of Article IV of the US Constitution. However, the ruling left a legal loophole that several federal agencies, including US Customs and Border Protection and the Defense Intelligence Agency, have exploited. It was also previously known that the Department of Homeland Security purchased location data of US citizens from private marketing companies in the past.
Predictably, the admissions have angered rights activists and privacy groups, who say such actions by the FBI and other investigators could have serious consequences for American citizens’ digital freedom and privacy.
In a statement to Ars Technica, EFF Senior Attorney Adam Schwartz said, “U.S. government agencies should not be allowed to bypass Article IV of the Constitution by purchasing private information from data brokers who collect information on the precise movements of hundreds of millions of people without their actual knowledge or consent.” This highly sensitive information can reveal where we live, work, who we interact with, where we worship, demonstrate and seek medical care.”
Sean Vitka, an attorney with the civil liberties advocacy group Demand Progress, described the FBI’s actions as horrifying. “The public should know who green-lighted these purchases, why, and what others have done or are trying to do the same thing?” he said. He also called for drafting legislation banning the practice completely.