House passes bill barring spy agencies, law enforcement from buying Americans’ personal data

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The measure doesn’t have support from the Biden administration, which argues it threatens national security and worsens Americans’ privacy protections.

The House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a bill that would bar law enforcement and intelligence agencies from buying Americans’ location data and other personal information from commercial providers like data brokers.

The lower chamber voted 219-199 to advance the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, which broadens the 1986 Stored Communications Act requiring law enforcement and the IC to seek a warrant before obtaining customer or subscriber data from a third party and designates any of that information as inadmissible evidence in a court proceeding.

The measure now goes to the Senate for votes before being sent to the White House. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a privacy hawk who is running point on companion legislation, urged the high chamber to follow suit as soon as possible. 

The Biden administration strongly opposes the legislation on grounds that such commercially available information helps the U.S. stop cyberattacks, track fentanyl shipments and thwart terrorist activity, but the National Security Council declined to tell Nextgov/FCW whether President Joe Biden would veto it.

The bill “does not affect the ability of foreign adversaries or the private sector to obtain and use the same information, thus negating any privacy benefit to U.S. persons while threatening America’s national security,” the White House said Tuesday.

Intelligence agencies often purchase or obtain data to help complete mission objectives, which could include telemetry from computer logs or weather data publicly available online. But data purchases linked to platforms or apps where consumers legally but sometimes unknowingly give away their location information and other personal details when clicking ‘yes’ on user agreements have become a privacy ethics flashpoint.

Data brokers package those consumer data caches, selling them both to law enforcement and U.S. spy agencies, as well as other private sector purchasers. The dynamic has put the IC on thin ice with some lawmakers and privacy advocates who call it an end-run around the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches and seizures.

“The bill would prevent flagrant abuses of our privacy by government authorities in league with unscrupulous third-party data brokers,” said Jenna Ruddock, policy counsel at Free Press Action, a left-of-center group focused on media and democracy. “The privacy violations that flow from law-enforcement entities circumventing the Fourth Amendment undermine civil liberties, free expression and our ability to control what happens to our data.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle sided with the administration, fearing the measure opens the door for potential security threats.

“Instead of rectifying past abuses, this legislation destroys credible surveillance efforts and severely hinders our ability to intercept threats to our country and communities before they occur,” said Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., who sits on several House caucuses focused on military and national security.

A 2023 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that the IC frequently buys troves of Americans’ data with few checks and balances, and that use of such information without oversight presents a privacy threat. Some of those purchases have included social media data, it said at the time.

ODNI confirmed to Nextgov/FCW last week it is finalizing a framework aimed at helping IC operatives better gauge ethical considerations when they purchase commercial data.

A newly unveiled federal privacy proposal would require data brokers to add themselves to a Federal Trade Commission registry that publicly signals they are in the business of aggregating and selling data bundles. It would also include a ‘‘Do Not Collect’’ directive that allows individuals to request data brokers not hoover up and sell their information.