Law Enforcement Purchase of Consumer Data Draws Congressional Scrutiny

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Democrat lawmakers addressed seven federal law enforcement agencies for documentation of how often data was procured outside formal legal channels.

Congressional leadership is asking federal law enforcement agencies for detailed information on how they purchase Americans’ personal data through various mediums and broker services, to determine the legal legitimacy of government data collection.

In a sweeping letter addressed to leaders at the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, FBI, Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Bernie Thompson, D-Miss., questioned how frequently these agencies purchase personal data from brokers rather than properly executing a warrant.

The data lawmakers referenced can be procured outside of formal investigations, primarily through data brokering services that harvest information from social media, phone apps and internet search engines.  

Nadler and Thompson asked for greater transparency in federal law enforcement’s data procurement practices via contracts with data brokers, specifically the legal basis for such data collection, as well as how purchased data can be used. 

“While comprehensive information on the widespread use of this practice is unavailable, the evidence indicates it is pervasive and that your agencies have contracts with numerous data brokers, who provide detailed information on millions of Americans,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote to agencies. 

Some of the data collected and sold by brokers are location information, internet history and activity. The letter specifies instances of federal contracts purchasing private data outside of established legal parameters, through alleged contacts with brokers like LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters, as well as surveillance companies like Babel Street and Venntel.

The letter was prefaced by a House Judiciary hearing in July where representatives heard testimony on the use of data dragnets—or methods for catching criminals—by government agencies. 

The incorporation of data brokers and emerging technologies has given rise to concerns over government surveillance. To provide adequate civil protections in an increasingly digitized age, regulatory agencies like the Federal Trade Commission are asking the public for input on what personal data security privacy should look like, while lawmakers have introduced the American Data Privacy and Protection Act to codify restraints on private companies’ access to consumer data.