The United States government has been secretly amassing a “large amount” of “sensitive and intimate information” on its own citizens, a group of senior advisers informed Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, more than a year ago.
The size and scope of the government effort to accumulate data revealing the minute details of Americans’ lives are described soberly and at length by the director’s own panel of experts in a newly declassified report. Haines had first tasked her advisers in late 2021 with untangling a web of secretive business arrangements between commercial data brokers and US intelligence community members.
What that report ended up saying constitutes a nightmare scenario for privacy defenders.
“This report reveals what we feared most,” says Sean Vitka, a policy attorney at the nonprofit Demand Progress. “Intelligence agencies are flouting the law and buying information about Americans that Congress and the Supreme Court have made clear the government should not have.”
In the shadow of years of inaction by the US Congress on comprehensive privacy reform, a surveillance state has been quietly growing in the legal system’s cracks. Little deference is paid by prosecutors to the purpose or intent behind limits traditionally imposed on domestic surveillance activities. More craven interpretations of aging laws are widely used to ignore them. As the framework guarding what privacy Americans do have grows increasingly frail, opportunities abound to split hairs in court over whether such rights are even enjoyed by our digital counterparts.
“I’ve been warning for years that if using a credit card to buy an American’s personal information voids their Fourth Amendment rights, then traditional checks and balances for government surveillance will crumble,” Ron Wyden, a US senator from Oregon, says.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) did not immediately respond to a request for comment. WIRED was unable to reach any members of the senior advisory panel, whose names have been redacted in the report. Former members have included ex-CIA officials of note and top defense industry leaders.
Wyden had pressed Haines, previously the number two at the Central Intelligence Agency, to release the panel’s report during a March 8 hearing. Haines replied at the time that she believed it “absolutely” should be read by the public. On Friday, the report was declassified and released by the ODNI, which has been embroiled in a legal fight with the digital rights nonprofit the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) over a host of related documents.
“This report makes it clear that the government continues to think it can buy its way out of constitutional protections using taxpayers’ own money,” says Chris Baumohl, a law fellow at EPIC. “Congress must tackle the government’s data broker pipeline this year, before it considers any reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” he said (referring to the ongoing political fight over the so-called “crown jewel” of US surveillance).
The ODNI’s own panel of advisers makes clear that the government’s static interpretations of what constitutes “publicly available information” poses a significant threat to the public. The advisers decry existing policies that automatically conflate, in the first place, being able to buy information with it being considered “public.” The information being commercially sold about Americans today is “more revealing, available on more people (in bulk), less possible to avoid, and less well understood” than that which is traditionally thought of as being “publicly available.”