The NSA’s warrantless eavedropping and tracking of all your telephone call is just the tip of the iceberg.
Numerous federal and local law enforcement agencies have bypassed subpoenas and warrants designed to protect civil liberties and gathered Americans’ personal telephone records from private-sector data brokers.
These brokers, many of whom advertise aggressively on the Internet, have gotten into customer accounts online, tricked phone companies into revealing information and even acknowledged that their practices violate laws, according to documents gathered by congressional investigators and provided to The Associated Press.
The law enforcement agencies include offices in the Homeland Security Department and Justice Department — including the FBI and U.S. Marshal’s Service — and municipal police departments in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Utah. Experts believe hundreds of other departments frequently use such services.
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A lawmaker who has investigated the industry said Monday he was concerned by the practices of data brokers.
“We know law enforcement has used this because it is easily obtained and you can gather a lot of information very quickly,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., head of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee. The panel expects to conduct hearings this week.
Whitfield said data companies will relentlessly pursue a target’s personal information. “They will impersonate and use everything available that they have to convince the person who has the information to share it with them, and it’s shocking how successful they are,” Whitfield said. “They can basically obtain any information about anybody on any subject.”
The congressman said laws on the subject are vague: “There’s a good chance there are some laws being broken, but it’s not really clear precisely which laws.”
James Bearden, a Texas lawyer who represents four such data brokers, compared the companies’ activities to the National Security Agency, which reportedly compiles the phone records of ordinary Americans.
“The government is doing exactly what these people are accused of doing,” Bearden said. “These people are being demonized. These are people who are partners with law enforcement on a regular basis.”
The police agencies told AP they used the data brokers because it was quicker and easier than subpoenas, and their lawyers believe their actions were lawful. Some agencies, such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, instructed agents to stop the practice after congressional inquiries.
None of the police agencies interviewed by AP said they researched these data brokers to determine how they secretly gather sensitive information like names associated with unlisted numbers, records of phone calls, e-mail aliases — even tracing a person’s location using their cellular phone signal.
“This is pernicious, an end run around the Fourth Amendment,” said Marc Rotenberg, head of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, a leading privacy group that has sought tougher federal regulation of data brokers. “The government is encouraging unlawful conduct; it’s not smart on the law enforcement side to be making use of information obtained improperly.”
A federal agent who ordered phone records without subpoenas about a half-dozen times recently said he learned about the service from FBI investigators and was told this was a method to obtain phone subscriber information quicker than with a subpoena.
Another company years ago even acknowledged breaking the law.
“We must break various rules of law in acquiring all the information we achieve for you,” Touch Tone Information Inc. of Denver wrote to a law firm in 1998 that was seeking records of calls made on a calling card.
The FBI’s top lawyers told agents as early as 2001 they can gather private information about Americans from data brokers, even information gleaned from mortgage applications and credit reports, which normally would be off-limits to the government under the U.S. Fair Credit Reporting Act.
FBI lawyers rationalized that even though data brokers may have obtained financial information, agents could still use the information because brokers were not acting as a consumer-reporting agency but rather as a data warehouse.