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US Gov is gathering sensitive citizen data from third-parties: Report

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  • 5 min read
Photo: Alena Veasey / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Alena Veasey / Shutterstock.com

The United States government has been clandestinely gathering troves of sensitive and intimate information, dubbed as Commercially Available Information (CAI) about its citizens, a declassified report revealed. The report was disclosed over a year ago by a group of senior advisors to Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence.

The report, prepared by the director’s panel of experts, details the extent of the government’s efforts to accumulate data that unveils the minutest details of Americans’ lives. Initially assigned to investigate covert business arrangements between commercial data brokers and US intelligence community members in late 2021, Haines’ advisers uncovered a nightmarish scenario for privacy advocates.

As per the report, CAI can be described as “Any information customarily made available or obtainable and sold, leased, or licensed to the general public or to non-governmental entities for purposes other than governmental purposes. Commercially Available Information also includes information for exclusive government use, knowingly and voluntarily provided by, procured from, or made accessible by corporate entities at the request of a government entity, or on their own initiative.”

In essence, commercially available information encompasses a wide range of data that is commercially accessible or voluntarily shared by corporations with the government. This can include data commonly available to the public and specifically provided to the government by commercial entities like credit histories, insurance claims, criminal records, employment histories, incomes, ethnicities, purchase histories, and interests.

As we all know, Google is pioneer in data collection with other big tech giants following closely. This includes many intimate details such as IP addresses, location data, system activity, browsing history, and sensor data from your device. Google promised to use the data safely. However, it was found that Google isn’t deleting your sensitive location data. Now think how easy it will be for the governments to track the most sensitive details of a person if Google decides to voluntarily give the data to the government.

Coming back to the report. According to Sean Vitka, a policy attorney at the nonprofit organisation Demand Progress, the report exposes the intelligence agencies’ blatant disregard for the law by purchasing information about Americans that Congress and the Supreme Court have explicitly stated the government should not possess.

A pictorial representation of how your data is being utilised. | Source: ODNI Senior Advisory Group Panel on Commercially Available Information report

Over the years, with the US Congress failing to take comprehensive action on privacy reform, a surveillance state has silently flourished within the crevices of the legal system. Prosecutors pay little regard to the purpose or intent behind the traditionally imposed limitations on domestic surveillance activities. Instead, they exploit questionable interpretations of ageing laws, leaving the framework that protects Americans’ privacy increasingly vulnerable. This erosion of privacy rights creates ample opportunities for legal debates about the extent to which digital counterparts enjoy such rights.

The ODNI’s advisory panel warns of the significant threat posed to the public by the government’s rigid interpretations of “publicly available information.” They criticize existing policies that equate the ability to purchase information with it being considered “public.” The commercially sold information about Americans today is more revealing, available in bulk, harder to evade, and less well understood than the traditionally defined “publicly available” data.


Why you should be worried?

ODNI’s report cited a press release by Gartner which stated that the Internet of behaviours (IoB) is emerging as many technologies capture and use the digital dust of people’s daily lives. The IoB combines existing technologies that focus on the individual directly — facial recognition, location tracking and big data, for example — and connects the resulting data to associated behavioural events, such as cash purchases or device usage.”

So, the first and only concern is your privacy. You are not as private as you think you are. Every online transaction is recorded, and the data is available with the companies or the data brokers, as the report calls them.

The sheer amount of data can be combined with other non-CAI data to reverse engineer identities or deanonymise various forms of information. Back in 2019, the New York Times was able to track the movement of President Trump via the details of a member of his Secret Service. This supposedly anonymised data can be utilised to identify participants of protests or rallies based on their smartphone location or ad-tracking records.

Where’s the government in all this? The report asserts that the government can persistently track the phones of millions of Americans without a warrant as long as it purchases the information. If the government were to demand direct access to a device’s location, it would be deemed a Fourth Amendment “search” and require judicial approval. However, since companies willingly sell the information, the government considers it “publicly available” and asserts its right to buy it — a legal loophole that needs to be addressed.

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Kumar Hemant

Deputy Editor at Candid.Technology. Hemant writes at the intersection of tech and culture and has a keen interest in science, social issues and international relations. You can contact him here: [email protected]

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