New Details Emerge on US Government Spying on Americans

New Details Emerge on US Government Spying on Americans
Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington on March 10, 2022. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Tom Ozimek

New details have emerged on the U.S. government spying on citizens following the release of a bombshell report showing that intelligence agencies have bought vast troves of sensitive information on Americans from businesses that harvest people’s data.

Over the years, private data collection services have accumulated commercially available information (CAI), which encompasses highly-revealing data on millions of American citizens, including location, smartphone, and web browsing data.

While much of this commercially available data is anonymous, it can be “deanonymized” and used to identify people, according to a recent report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), released on June 9.

U.S. intelligence agencies have admitted to buying large quantities of this information and are able to tap it for valuable intelligence on unsuspecting Americans, per the report.

The report warned that a lack of standards and procedures around obtaining and handling this data by spy agencies poses risks to people’s privacy and even safety.

In a new development following the release of the report, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said that she has established a panel to make recommendations about how spy agencies can use this information.

“Given the increasing volume of data that is commercially available, I established a Senior Advisory Group Panel on Commercially Available Information and asked them to make recommendations to the Intelligence Community (IC) regarding how and under what circumstances the IC should use commercially available information, and in particular, to reflect on the existing framework for ensuring the protection of privacy and civil liberties,” Haines said in a June 14 statement.

Haines added that her office—and the intelligence community more broadly—are now considering the report’s key recommendations and working to implement them.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines speaks during a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on May 4, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines speaks during a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on May 4, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Growing Threat

The report represents the first known attempt by the government to carry out a comprehensive assessment of how federal agencies obtain and use commercially available data on Americans, which is often collected without their knowledge.

“In a way that far fewer Americans seem to understand, and even fewer of them can avoid, CAI includes information on nearly everyone that is of a type and level of sensitivity that historically could have been obtained” only by targeted intelligence gathering capabilities, such as court-authorized search warrants, wiretaps, and surveillance, the report states.

Its publication follows a request by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for Haines to review all commercial data purchases by intelligence agencies.

“I appreciate that DNI Haines kept her word to stand-up this review group and then to publish the results of their work,” Wyden said in a statement.

The report was authored by an advisory panel, whose identity has been redacted.

The key takeaway from the report is that commercially available information is an increasingly powerful asset for use in intelligence—and that it poses a growing threat to privacy, individual liberties, and even personal safety.

Even though commercially available information may be anonymous, the report warns that it’s often possible to “deanonymize” it and so identify the individuals it pertains to. This information could then be used to “cause harm to an individual’s reputation, emotional well-being, or physical safety.”

If the data falls into the wrong hands, it could easily be used to “facilitate blackmail, stalking, harassment, and public shaming,” the report warns.

U.S. intelligence agencies were urged in the report to develop better policies and guardrails around the use of such data in order to address the growing threat that this practice poses.

Commercially available information “is increasingly powerful for intelligence and increasingly sensitive for individual privacy and civil liberties, and the IC therefore needs to develop more refined policies to govern its acquisition and treatment,” the report states.

While no specific policy recommendations were put forward, the report identified gaps, such as a lack of standards and procedures for acquiring and handling such data. It also flagged a lack of transparency, noting that the intelligence community does not even keep track of what commercially available information it buys on Americans.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) speaks during a hearing in Washington on June 30, 2020. (Susan Walsh/Pool/Getty Images)
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) speaks during a hearing in Washington on June 30, 2020. (Susan Walsh/Pool/Getty Images)

Wyden urged stronger executive oversight of the acquisition and use of such data, while calling on Congress to establish safeguards.

“This review shows the government’s existing policies have failed to provide essential safeguards for Americans’ privacy, or oversight of how agencies buy and use personal data,” Wyden said in a statement, adding that the current state of affairs means that there are ”few meaningful limits on government surveillance.”

“Congress needs to pass legislation to put guardrails around government purchases, to rein in private companies that collect and sell this data, and keep Americans’ personal information out of the hands of our adversaries,” Wyden said.

The Epoch Times has reached out to ODNI with a request for comment and on Wyden’s call for new legal guardrails but did not receive a response by time of publication.

Tom Ozimek is a senior reporter for The Epoch Times. He has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education.
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