Government agencies are buying their way around the 4th Amendment

A Republican congressman last week highlighted an often-overlooked threat to the privacy of all Americans: the federal government’s practice of buying citizens’ private market data (PMD) from data brokers without a warrant. Representative Kelly Armstrong (R–ND) raised the issue with the House Select Subcommittee on Arming the Federal Government. Opening hearing.

“The federal government has realized the value of the vast amount of commercial consumer data that is freely available on the open market,” Armstrong said. “Combine [the amount of data available] With the advancement of technology [artificial intelligence]Facial recognition, and so on, that will allow for aggregation, analysis and identification, and we are approaching a surveillance state with no assurance other than our government’s promise that it will not abuse this enormous responsibility.”

As Americans use the Internet and online platforms, they leave a trail of personal data, website cookies, social media platforms, mobile applications and countless other digital data collected by hover. This information is collected, processed, and sold by data brokers. Private companies buy this data from brokers to shape their advertising strategies, but the data is also sold to governments.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for example, bought Location data to monitor compliance with COVID restrictions (among other purposes) as per documents reviewed by the vice. In 2017-18, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigation Unit paid to access location data to strengthen enforcement efforts. After reviewing a database similar to that accessed by the IRS, The Wall Street Journal ReportIn many cases, the data is specific enough to clearly identify the phone user’s home address, which can then be cross-checked against public databases showing property ownership records or rental address history.”

Under modern case law, the Fourth Amendment does not prevent government purchases of PMD, because such transactions do not require searches or seizures. “The government can buy business records without a warrant or reason.” According to Orrin Kerr, law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “The Fourth Amendment does not apply.” Furthermore, Kerr writes, when multiple parties lay claim to data—eg, the data broker and the user who created the data—any one can choose to disclose it to government officials.

There is a need to understand how much data individuals generate continuously and voluntarily. “In 2018, people created, captured, copied, and consumed 33 zettabytes (ZB) of data — about 33 trillion gigabytes or 128,906,250,000 iPhone 12s worth of data,” said Klon Kitchen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. wrote In 2021. “That number reached 59 ZB in 2020 and is predicted to hit 175 ZB by 2025. Put another way: Humans currently generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. If you put 2.5 quintillion pennies flat, you’d flatten the Earth. Can cover five times the surface.”

Data brokerage was estimated to be a $200 billion industry 2020. Acxiom, a prominent data broker, had data on 500 million customers worldwide (with up to 3,000 data points on each individual). According to the Federal Trade Commission, one broker received 3 billion “new records” per month Report From 2014. In the intervening years, this figure has likely ballooned.

Although Americans generally understand how to maintain personal privacy on Meetspace, most are completely unaware that their daily online activities—such as visiting a website—generate personal data that can be processed and sold by brokers. Congress must codify additional Fourth Amendment restrictions on government actors, reducing the ability to purchase PMDs without strong judicial or other oversight.