The National Security Agency has secretly been buying Americans’ internet records and using them for spying purposes without obtaining a warrant, a senior senator revealed Thursday.
Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said the practice had been a “legal gray area,” with data brokers quietly obtaining and reselling the internet “metadata” without the users’ consent. He said the NSA has been trying to keep the whole thing under wraps.
In a letter to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, the senator said the government needs a “wake-up call,” and he called for new rules limiting purchases only to data that Americans have consented to be sold.
“The U.S. government should not be funding and legitimizing a shady industry whose flagrant violations of Americans’ privacy are not just unethical, but illegal,” he said.
He released a letter from Army General Paul M. Nakasone, director of the NSA, detailing and justifying the agency’s actions.
Gen. Nakasone said it acquires what it calls “commercially available information” but said the acquisitions are limited. They don’t include location data from phones “known to be used in the United States,” and they don’t buy or use location data from automobiles in the U.S.
They do buy “non-content” data “where one side of the communication is a U.S. Internet Protocol address and the other is located abroad.”
The general said that information was critical for “the U.S. Defense Industrial Base.”
“NSA understands and greatly values the congressional and public trust it has been granted to carry out its critical foreign intelligence and cybersecurity missions on behalf of the American people,” Gen. Nakasone wrote.
In a separate letter, Under Secretary of Defense Ronald S. Moultrie defended the legality.
“I am not aware of any requirement in U.S. law or judicial opinion … that DoD obtain a court order in order to acquire, access or use information, such as CAI, that is equally available for purchase to foreign adversaries, U.S. companies and private persons as it is to the U.S. government,” he wrote.
Mr. Wyden, though, says the legal landscape may have just changed.
He pointed to the Federal Trade Commission’s action earlier this month against a data broker. In that case, the FTC said the sale of location data is an intrusion into consumers’ lives. The FTC says for data to be collected for resale to government national security agencies, consumers must be told that explicitly.
Mr. Wyden said the same standard applies to other broker-sold information the government is acquiring, such as metadata. Metadata is the hidden information that accompanies communications, such as the source and time.
Mr. Wyden said he’s never found a broker that delivers that comprehensive warning.
The senator previously revealed that the Defense Intelligence Agency was buying commercially available location data that included Americans.
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