On Wednesday, privacy advocates argued that the testimony given by FBI Director Christopher Wray during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee provides new proof that Congress must intervene to prevent the government from conducting mass surveillance on individuals throughout the United States.
During the hearing, Wray acknowledged that the bureau had acquired cellphone geolocation information from companies, which serves as the most recent example of the need for legislative action, The Defender reported.
During a hearing on national security threats, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) inquired whether the FBI procures "U.S. phone geolocation information" that tracks the location of users. While Wray stated that the bureau currently does not make such purchases, he disclosed, for the first time, that it “previously, as in the past, purchased some such information for a specific national security pilot project,” drawing on data “derived from internet advertising.”
Wray mentioned that the national security pilot project had been inactive "for some time" and that he could only disclose more details about it and the past procurement of geolocation information during a closed session with senators. He also indicated that the FBI currently obtains "so-called ad tech location data" through a "court-authorized process."
“I think it's a very important privacy issue that [geolocation data purchases] not take place,” said Wyden, who has always been a big advocate for Americans' privacy rights, The Defender noted further.
The outlet also reported that grassroots social welfare organization Demand Progress called Wray’s admission “both shocking and further proof of the need for Congress to take immediate action to rein in mass surveillance.”
“This is a policy decision that affects the privacy of every single person in the United States,” said Sean Vitka, the organization's policy counsel, the outer noted. “We should have the right to decide when and how our personal information is shared, but instead, intelligence agencies continue to obstruct any accountability or transparency around this surveillance.”
The disclosure occurred amid discussions regarding the reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is set to expire later this year. The provision permits the U.S. government to carry out focused surveillance on individuals located in foreign countries. However, intelligence agencies have employed this legislation to gather information on Americans as well, said the report.
“Congress must fix this before considering any reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act this year,” said Vitka following Wray's admission.
Vitka and Fight for the Future director Evan Greer were among the critics are now demanding to know “who told [Wray] buying Americans’ location info from data brokers would be legal?”
Hey @SenOssoff instead of joking about NSA spying and inviting @CYBERCOM_DIRNSA over for pecan pie, maybe use your new power as a member of SSCI to conduct oversight? Like by asking @FBI @DirectorWray who told him buying Americans' location info from data brokers would be legal?
— Evan Greer is on Mastodon (@evan_greer) March 8, 2023
Privacy advocates have long cautioned about a loophole in the 2018 Carpenter v. United States Supreme Court ruling. The case established that government agencies that obtained location data without a warrant breached the Fourth Amendment. However, advocates have warned that the decision contains a loophole that permits the government to purchase data that it cannot legally acquire, The Defender noted further.
“The public needs to know who gave the go-ahead for this purchase, why, and what other agencies have done or are trying to do the same," Vitka told Wired.