Sen. Wyden Demands NSA Cease Personal Data Harvesting

The National Security Agency is revealed to be purchasing Americans’ internet browsing information from commercial brokers without a warrant. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is calling on intelligence officials to stop the unlawful use of personal data without their knowledge.

Releasing a Dec. 11, 2023, letter of admission of the practice, Wyden had blocked the appointment of incoming NSA Director Timothy Haugh until the agency responded to questions about internet and location data collection.

NSA Director Paul Nakasone confirmed the purchases in a letter to Wyden, saying the data collected “may include information associated with electronic devices being used outside — and, in certain cases, inside — the United States.”

Nakasone called the data “commercially available information” but said the acquisitions are limited and don’t include location data from phones “known to be used in the United States,” and that they don’t buy or use location data from automobiles in the United States, the Washington Examiner reported.

Wyden argued that those records can reveal which websites Americans’ visit and what apps they use and are in violation of Federal Trade Commission standards.

“The U.S. government should not be funding and legitimizing a shady industry whose flagrant violations of Americans’ privacy are not just unethical, but illegal,” Wyden wrote in a letter to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on Thursday.

According to the Washington Examiner, Wyden fought for nearly three years to publicly release the fact that NSA buys Americans’ internet records. He succeeded in obtaining public confirmation of that fact after putting a hold on the nomination of Haugh to serve as NSA director.

Web browsing records can reveal sensitive, private information about a person based on where they go on the internet, including visiting websites related to mental health resources, resources for survivors of sexual assault or domestic abuse, or visiting a telehealth provider who focuses on birth control or abortion medication, the Washington Examiner noted.

Wyden, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has revealed how multiple federal government agencies have bought and searched Americans’ private records — including location data, internet records and more — without a warrant — in effect using their credit card to circumvent the Fourth Amendment, the Washington Examiner noted.

“Until recently, the data broker industry and the intelligence community’s purchase of data from these shady companies has existed in a legal gray area, which was in large part due to the secrecy surrounding the practice,” Wyden wrote.  “App developers and advertising companies did not meaningfully disclose to users their sale and sharing of personal data with data brokers nor seek to obtain informed consent.”

Wyden had urged the DNI to direct intelligence agencies to stop purchasing Americans’ private data obtained unlawfully in violation of new rules outlined by the Federal Trade Commission on Jan. 9.

He also asked the DNI to direct intelligence agency elements to take three actions to ensure they are complying with the FTC’s latest rulings, demanding they: 

  • Conduct an inventory of the personal data purchased by the agency about Americans, including, but not limited to, location, and internet metadata.
  • Determine whether each data source identified in that inventory meets the standards for legal personal data sales outlined by the FTC.
  • And where those data purchases do not meet the FTC’s legal standard for personal data sales, promptly purge the data.

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