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Report: FBI buys your phone data, just like everyone else

A declassified report reveals that US spy agencies are following tech companies by purchasing citizens' data.

Published onJune 13, 2023

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Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority
  • A declassified report has revealed that US government agencies are buying citizens’ personal info.
  • The “commercially available information” comes from phones, cars, cookies, and more.
  • The report also acknowledges several problems with this practice.

It should come as no surprise to hear that companies and other entities have access to your personal data. But a newly declassified report has revealed that US intelligence and spy agencies buy the personal data of American citizens.

The Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence (ODNI) posted a declassified report detailing the scope of this practice (h/t: TechCrunch). The report confirms that agencies buy citizens’ so-called commercially available information (CAI).

This commercially available data comes from smartphones, connected cars, IoT devices, web tracking technologies like cookies, and more traditional avenues (e.g. public records). Data obtained via these purchases include location information, web browsing activity, social media info, and more.

US intelligence agencies don’t directly buy this information, though, relying on so-called data brokers or “information resellers.”

Plenty of concerns over collected info

This report also notes that while this data is often anonymized, it’s possible to use other forms of CAI to deanonymize and identify US individuals. This echoes a 2019 New York Times report on the smartphone tracking industry, which found that people could still be identified from their “anonymized” data.

The declassified report also acknowledges that this acquired information can be subject to abuse.

“In the wrong hands, sensitive insights gained through CAI could facilitate blackmail, stalking, harassment, and public shaming,” reads an excerpt of the report.

Furthermore, the report notes that this practice has implications for civil liberties:

CAI can disclose, for example, the detailed movements and associations of individuals and groups, revealing political, religious, travel, and speech activities. CAI could be used, for example, to identify every person who attended a protest or rally based on their smartphone location or ad-tracking records.

Either way, it’s not a surprise that the US government has the same broad access to personal data that the likes of Google and Facebook have. But this report still underscores the need for serious privacy improvements in the tech industry, as well as stiffer laws surrounding data brokers.

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