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FBI Admits to Have Gained US Citizens’ Location Data, Unwarranted

“We have no plans to change that, at the current time,” said the FBI director on being asked if the practice will be continued.

According to a Wired report, FBI Director Christopher Wray revealed for the first time at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday that the organization has previously acquired the location data of US citizens without obtaining a warrant. 

Despite the practice becoming more frequent and widespread since the US Supreme Court restricted the government’s ability to track Americans’ phones warrantlessly, around five years ago, the FBI did not previously acknowledge ever making purchases of such kind. 

The revelation comes after Sen. Ron Wyden [D-Ore] questioned Wray “Does the FBI purchase US phone-geolocation information?” The response to which alarmed privacy experts. 

“To my knowledge, we do not currently purchase commercial database information that includes location data derived from Internet advertising[…]I understand that we previously—as in the past—purchased some such information for a specific national security pilot project. But that’s not been active for some time,” said Wray. 

The response, while being vague and revolving around the question asked, gave a clear insight into the way the FBI made use of location data to monitor US individuals with no court oversight. 

It is not immediately clear whether Wray was talking to a warrant—a court order that states that a crime has been committed—or another legal device. Wray also did not explain why the FBI decided to stop the practice. 

The Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Carpenter v. United States decision, that when government organizations accessed historical location data without a warrant, they were in violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unjustified searches. But the decision was interpreted very strictly. Privacy groups claim that the judgment left an obvious gap that enables the government to just buy anything it is unable to legally obtain. The Military Intelligence Agency and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are two federal organizations that are known to have exploited this loophole. 

On being asked during the Senate hearing whether the FBI is planning to adhere to the practice of buying location data again, Wray said “We have no plans to change that, at the current time.” 

According to Seam Vitka, a policy lawyer at Demand Progress, a nonprofit firm based on national security and private reforms, the FBI needs to be more forthcoming about the purchase, dubbing Wray’s revelation as “horrifying” in its implications. “The public needs to know who gave the go-ahead for this purchase, why, and what other agencies have done or are trying to do the same,” says Vitka. 

US lawmakers have historically failed to enact a comprehensive privacy law, and the majority of the proposed bills have purposely ignored the government's own acquisition of US citizens' private data. For example, all law enforcement organizations and any business "gathering, processing, or transferring" data on their behalf are excluded from the provisions of the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA), which was presented last year. Wyden and other senators have attempted to tackle the problem head-on with a number of proposals. For instance, the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act has been reintroduced multiple times in Congress since 2011, but it has never been put to a vote.  

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