US Spies Are Buying Americans’ Private Data. Congress Has a Chance to Stop It

The amendment was introduced Friday to defense legislation that will ultimately authorize a range of policies and programs consuming much of the Pentagon’s nearly $890 billion budget next year. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which Congress is required to pass annually, is typically pieced together from hundreds, if not thousands, of amendments. 

This year negotiations are particularly contentious, given the split chamber and a mess of interparty strife, and only one in six NDAA amendments introduced so far have apparent bipartisan support. 

Republican members Nancy Mace of South Carolina, Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, and Ben Cline of Virginia have backed the Davidson-Jacobs amendment, according to the House Rules Committee website. They’re joined by Democrats Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Zoe Lofgren of California, and Veronica Escobar of Texas.

Jacobs previously coauthored a related amendment with Davidson that attempted to compel the US military to disclose annually how often its various spy agencies purchase Americans’ smartphone and web-browsing data. The amendment was stripped from the final version of last year’s NDAA.

The data broker report declassified last month by the US director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, stressed that neither presently, nor at any point in the past, would the government be permitted to force “billions of people to carry location-tracking devices on their persons at all times.” That is, nevertheless, what is happening today, independent of the government’s actions. The unceasing explosions of new technologies are clashing more and more frequently with the nation’s antiquated privacy laws, giving the Department of Homeland Security, Defense Intelligence Agency, and others like them an unmistakable loophole through which virtually anyone can be surveilled without a reason. 

Demand Progress senior policy counsel Sean Vitka, whose group has spent years lobbying for privacy reform in the face of the government’s growing and often secret reliance on data brokers, says the relatively untracked purchases—up to and including “turnkey lists of everyone who has gone to an abortion clinic, a place of worship, a rehab facility, or a protest”—represent an “existential threat” to the right to privacy. The Davidson-Jacobs amendment marks a “critical opportunity to get [federal lawmakers] on the record,” adds Vitka.

The American Civil Liberties Union intends to score how lawmakers vote on the amendment, WIRED has learned. The lawmakers’ effort is also being supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, FreedomWorks, and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, among dozens of similar civil society organizations.  

Congressional staffers and others privy to ongoing conferencing over privacy matters on Capitol Hill say that regardless of whether the amendment succeeds, the focus on data brokers is just a prelude to a bigger fight coming this fall over the potential sunsetting of one of the spy community’s powerful tools, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the survivability of which is anything but assured.


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