NSA Bought Americans’ Browsing Data Without a Warrant
The US National Security Agency (NSA) has been buying Americans’ internet browsing data from commercial data brokers without obtaining warrants. This practice, which involves collecting web browsing information, such as the websites visited and apps used by Americans, came to light through documents made public by Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden.
Senator Wyden, a long-standing advocate for privacy and internet freedom, released newly unclassified letters from the Pentagon confirming these sales. These letters reveal that the NSA’s purchases include netflow data, or the technical information generated by devices as they use the internet. However, it does not encompass the content of Americans’ communications. This data is related to both wholly domestic internet communications and those involving one party inside the US and the other abroad.
In a statement, Senator Wyden noted “Web browsing records can reveal sensitive, private information about a person based on where they go on the internet, including visiting websites related to mental health resources, resources for survivors of sexual assault or domestic abuse, or visiting a telehealth provider who focuses on birth control or abortion medication.”
In his efforts to expose these practices publically, Senator Wyden highlighted the risks associated with the easy availability of Americans' personal data. He urged the Biden administration to put an end to the warrantless surveillance of Americans through the purchase of internet data, labeling the practice as not just unethical but potentially illegal. Wyden’s efforts culminated in the public release of the NSA’s activities only after he placed a hold on the nomination of the successor for NSA director, which is currently held by Paul Nakasone.
In his correspondence with Senator Wyden, Paul Nakasone specified that the agency does not buy cell phone location data or location data generated by automotive infotainment systems within the United States. The NSA, in a statement to CNN, affirmed that it purchases the data for its cybersecurity mission. They emphasized that at all stages, the NSA takes steps to minimize the collection of US personal information.
In the midst of this, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been actively cracking down on data brokers and their sale of sensitive information. In recent actions, the FTC barred companies like Outlogic (formerly X-Mode Social) and InMarket Media from selling precise location information without informed user consent.