The U.S. government is the top customer when it comes to buying Americans' private data

The White House and both major parties in Congress agree about one thing: foreign-owned platforms such as Tik Tok are a grave threat to American data security. But the U.S. government itself is a major buyer of private information about Americans, vacuuming it all from U.S. tech firms through a variety of sources, and there is "little oversight" of what's going on in the dark. The extent to which U.S. government agencies spend your money buying your data is revealed in a new report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Unchecked overreliance on commercially available information poses a threat to Americans, the report found. Commercially purchased data "can reveal sensitive and intimate information about the personal attributes, private behavior, social connections, and speech of U.S. persons and non-U.S. persons," the report said. "It can be misused to pry into private lives, ruin reputations, and cause emotional distress and threaten the safety of individuals. Even subject to appropriate controls, CAI can increase the power of the government's ability to peer into private lives to levels that may exceed our constitutional traditions or other social expectations." Government agencies have to navigate an array of laws that often prevent them from tracking Americans without a court order or warrant. But there are few legal restrictions on private companies that buy, repackage and sell personal data, which the report calls "commercially available information" or CAI. 

Data brokers are the loophole: "an entire industry … selling very specific information about people. Agencies in the U.S. intelligence community (IC) can simply buy that information from the companies that collect it." The examples given are the media and public records archives operated by Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis (both foreign-owned) and U.S. data brokers Exactis and PeekYou.

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