The National Security Agency has been accused of buying Americans’ internet browsing information from commercial data brokers without warrants, according to documents released by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
In a letter to Wyden, NSA director Paul Nakasone provided newly unclassified documents revealing that the agency buys Americans’ data, including information about the websites they visit and the apps they use. The letter, dated Dec. 11, was made public on Thursday.
Wyden, a privacy and internet freedom advocate who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called on U.S. intelligence officials to end unlawful use of Americans’ personal data without their knowledge and consent.
“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 to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on Thursday.
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The senator had blocked the appointment of incoming NSA Director Timothy Haugh until the agency responded to his questions about collecting Americans’ internet and location data. Wyden said in a news release that he pushed for nearly three years to publicly release information showing the NSA is purchasing Americans’ internet records.
“Such records can identify Americans who are seeking help from a suicide hotline or a hotline for survivors of sexual assault or domestic abuse,” he wrote in his letter to Haines.
Nakasone confirmed the purchases, saying in his letter to Wyden that the data collected “may include information associated with electronic devices being used outside – and, in certain cases, inside – the United States.”
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The NSA attempted to defend the purchases by arguing that the information has significant value for national security and cybersecurity missions, and is used sparingly.
“At all stages, NSA takes steps to minimize the collection of U.S. person information, to include application of technical filters,” a spokesperson for the agency said.
Obtaining these records of Americans’ browsing data violates U.S. Federal Trade Commission standards, Wyden said to Haines. An FTC order earlier this month prohibited Virginia-based data broker Outlogic, formerly known as X-Mode Social, from selling sensitive location data that helps track a person’s location.
“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.”
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Wyden requested in his letter to Haines that the U.S. intelligence community build an inventory of all the personal data of Americans that the NSA has, and purge any of the data that does not comply with the FTC’s standards.
“Should IC elements have a specific need to retain the data, such need, and a description of any retained data, be conveyed to Congress and, to the greatest extent possible, to the American public,” Wyden wrote.
Reuters contributed to this report.