A recently released report reveals that intelligence agencies in the United States have been purchasing large volumes of sensitive data on American citizens. The report, declassified by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on June 9th, was initiated in response to a request by Senator Ron Wyden to Avril Haynes, the director of the agencies. Wyden commended Haynes for following through on her promise to conduct the review and publish the findings. Known for his vigilant oversight on the potential misuse of personal data by both commercial data brokers and government entities, Wyden asked Haynes during her confirmation hearing to investigate all commercial data acquisitions by intelligence agencies.
The report, authored by an advisory panel whose identity remains undisclosed, represents the first comprehensive assessment conducted by the government on the acquisition and utilization of commercially available data on Americans, often collected without their knowledge. It highlights that commercially available information has become a potent asset for intelligence purposes and poses a growing threat to privacy, individual liberties, and personal safety—a danger that remains underestimated by many Americans. The report emphasizes that while this information may be initially anonymous, it can often be deanonymized to identify individuals, including those within the United States, through various treatments. The report cautions that such information could be exploited to harm an individual’s reputation, emotional well-being, or physical safety. Moreover, in the wrong hands, this data could enable activities like blackmail, stalking, harassment, and public shaming.
The authors of the report urge intelligence agencies to develop more robust policies and safeguards regarding the acquisition and use of such data to address the escalating risks it poses. Although no specific policy recommendations are outlined in the report, it identifies gaps such as the absence of standards and procedures for data acquisition and handling. It also raises concerns about the lack of transparency, noting that the intelligence community does not maintain records of the commercially available information it procures on American citizens. According to the report, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence itself is unaware of which federal intelligence agencies are involved in purchasing personal data of Americans.
Unlike many other countries, particularly those in Europe, the United States lacks privacy or data protection laws that restrict the buying or selling of Americans’ private information. Wyden calls for stronger executive oversight of data acquisition and usage while urging Congress to establish safeguards. He asserts that the current policies have failed to provide essential protections for Americans’ privacy or ensure proper oversight of how agencies acquire and utilize personal data. Wyden emphasizes the urgent need for legislation to set boundaries on government purchases, regulate private companies engaged in data collection and sales, and prevent adversaries from accessing Americans’ personal information. However, as of now, there has been no response to Wyden’s call for new legal guardrails.
Senator Wyden has been a longstanding advocate for surveillance reform and has previously warned about the potential consequences of unrestricted collection of personal digital data, cautioning that it could lead to an irreversible surveillance state in the United States. In contrast, top officials from the CIA, FBI, and NSA recently appealed to Congress to continue allowing the intelligence community to intercept communications of American citizens without warrants. In a testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 13th, senior officials from these spy agencies requested the reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a highly contentious government surveillance program.
During the hearing, the committee’s senators challenged the agencies and called for the imposition of new safeguards, including the requirement for warrants before searching records of U.S. citizens stored in the Section 702 databases. Senator Durbin, the committee chairman, emphasized that he would only support the reauthorization of Section 702 if significant reforms were implemented, particularly in addressing the warrantless surveillance of Americans, which violates the Fourth Amendment.
Section 702 is a provision in U.S. law that permits agencies to gather intelligence on foreign agents