The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has acknowledged buying location data instead of obtaining a warrant for the first time. The revelation came during a US Senate hearing on global threats where FBI director Christopher Wray was asked point blank whether or not the FBI purchased US phone-geolocation data.
Wray responded by saying that while his agency wasn’t currently buying location data, it had done so once in the past “for a specific national security pilot project”, adding that now the bureau relies on a court-authorised process to get location data from companies. It’s not clear whether or not Wray was referring to a warrant or another legal process. He also didn’t say whether or not the FBI was looking to end the controversial practice once and for all.
Obtaining location data without a warrant was ruled out by the US Supreme Court nearly five years ago in the Carpenter v United States decision in 2018. However, the ruling left one obvious loophole allowing law enforcement agencies to simply buy the location data when not able to access it using legal means.
Agencies like the US Customs and Border Protection, Defense Intelligence Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have all been known to purchase US location data from private marketing firms. The data came from multiple seemingly harmless sources, including games and weather apps. State and federal government agencies have also been known to purchase software that tracks phone location data.
US lawmakers have been trying to pass a comprehensive privacy law for quite some time, but most of the bills suggested seem to be purposely avoiding the government’s acquisition of its own citizens’ personal data. The Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act has been reintroduced in Congress a number of times since 2011 but has never received a vote.
On the contrary, the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA), introduced in 2022 has exemptions for law enforcement agencies and companies collecting, processing or transferring data on their behalf.