“Just One Sign of a Much Larger Privacy Crisis"
In February, we quoted CATO Institute senior fellow Julian Sanchez that the evidence presented by special counsel John Durham against lawyer Michael Sussman shows an interesting trail that leads from academic researchers, to private cybersecurity companies and security experts, to government snoopers.
Sanchez said: “A question worth asking is: Who has access to large pools of telecommunications metadata, such as DNS records, and under what circumstances can those be shared with the government?”
Sanchez’s prescient questions received partial answers today from Sen. Ron Wyden. The Oregon senator released a letter he sent to the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to investigate Neustar, a company that links Domain Name System (DNS) services of websites to specific IP addresses and the people who use them.
Such companies, Sen. Wyden wrote, “receive extremely sensitive information from their users, which many Americans would want to remain private from third parties, including government agencies acting without a court order.” Some websites cited by the senator that consumers may visit but would not want known are the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, the National Domestic Violence Lifeline, and the Abortion Finder service.
Sen. Wyden wrote that Neustar, under former executive Rodney Joffe, sold data for millions of dollars to Georgia Tech, but not for purely academic research. Emails obtained by Sen. Wyden purportedly show that the FBI and DOJ “asked the researchers to run specific queries and that the researchers wrote affidavits and reports for the government describing their findings.”
Because Neustar obtained data from an acquired company – and that company explicitly promised to never sell users data to third-parties – Neustar violated that promise. Sen. Wyden says it is FTC policy that privacy promises to consumers must be honored when a company and its data change ownership.
“Senator Wyden provides sufficient reason for the FTC to open an investigation,” said Gene Schaerr, general counsel of Project for Privacy & Surveillance Accountability (PPSA). “But there is more reason for the judiciary committees of both houses of Congress to hold in-depth hearings. There are abundant signs that this story is just one example of a much bigger privacy crisis.”
Schaerr noted that intelligence and law enforcement agencies, from the Internal Revenue Service to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Protection, as well as the FBI, assert they can lawfully avoid the constitutional requirement for probable cause warrants by simply buying Americans’ personal information from commercial data brokers.
“Data from apps most Americans routinely use are open to warrantless examination by the government,” Schaerr said. “The Founders did not write the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment with a sub-clause, ‘unless you open your wallet.’ These practices are explicitly against the spirit and letter of the U.S. Constitution. Americans deserve to know how many agencies are buying data, how many companies are selling it, and what is being done with it.”
In a hearing over the summer, the House Judiciary Committee took a hard look at the way in which private data brokers freely sell Americans most personal information to a host of government law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Chairman Jerry Nadler said that digital tracking is “so precise that officers can track individuals within specific homes and businesses … tracking your location over time, within inches, without any due process whatsoever.
“The end result is that, just by going about your daily life, your data may be swept up in and make you the subject of a criminal investigation … If law enforcement and intelligence agencies remain unrestrained in their ability to purchase this data, our right to privacy will be at best illusory.”
Ranking Member Jim Jordan said that the government continues to transform guardrails meant to protect privacy into loopholes to allow the government to do whatever it wants. Jordan said, “this is wrong and it’s un-American.”
Representatives of both parties expressed dismay about how freely federal agencies utilize and abuse surveillance powers in defiance of the Fourth Amendment. Rep. Zoe Lofgren detailed the many ways the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency tracks Americans’ daily movements and extracts personal information from utility records. Rep. Andy Biggs spoke of the uses to which the government can employ geolocation tracking against Americans.
In short, the House Judiciary Committee did an excellent job of teeing up the issue. Now it is time to swing the club for a legislative solution.
On Wednesday, PPSA joined with Americans for Prosperity, Demand Progress, the Due Process Institute and Free Press Action to call on the committee to take bipartisan action and mark up the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act.
The House Intelligence Committee recently held an open hearing on commercial cyber surveillance, also known as “mercenary spyware.”
The hearing focused on new threats posed specifically by privately made, foreign-developed spyware that are bringing capabilities long associated with top-tier nation states to smaller countries and the private sector. PPSA has previously reported on one such foreign spyware, in particular the spreading “zero-click” Israeli-developed Pegasus.
Pegasus can transmit itself seamlessly into a smartphone without a single click or action from the victim. From there, it can watch you through your camera, listen to you through your microphone, copy your messages, record your calls, extract all your images, and follow your movements. In just a few years, Pegasus has been acquired by dozens of countries and entities, from Saudi Arabia to Mexican cartels, and has already been used to deadly effect against dissidents and journalists. It represents the most sophisticated and widely available form of spyware yet developed.
Among the hearing’s testimonials was John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at The Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. His testimony provided a stark picture to Congress:
Railton testified (see the 18:50 mark), “Your phone can be on your bedside table at two in the morning. One minute, your phone is clean. The next minute, the data is silently streaming to an adversary a continent away. You see nothing.” He added it was “capabilities available only to a handful of nation-states … It is too late,” he said, “to put the tech back into the bottle, and so we must take strong action now…”
Another witness was Carine Kanimba, an American citizen born in Rwanda. Her testimony (29:05) details the story of her stepfather, Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed by Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda. Rusesabagina was the manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali during the Rwandan genocide. He used the hotel to save more than a thousand refugees. Later, he and his family fled to the United States. Rusesabagina became a public speaker and was critical of the human rights violations of the Rwandan government and of the Rwandan President Paul Kagame. In August 2020, Kanimba’s stepfather was surveilled in the United States by the Rwandan government and lured from the family home in Texas. Rusesabagina was kidnapped in Dubai, transferred to Kigali, tortured, tried, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Kanimba became a vocal and effective activist about the abduction of her stepfather.
In February 2021, Carine Kanimba was notified (33:11) by forensics experts that her smartphone had been infected by Pegasus.
“I was mortified, and I am terrified,” she said. The forensics report showed “the spyware was triggered as I walked in with my mom into a meeting with the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was active during the calls with the U.S. Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs team and the U.S. State department, as well as U.S. human rights groups.”
Not only was Kanimba’s phone infected, but so was the phone of her cousin with whom she lives.
“I am frightened by what the Rwandan government will do to me and my family next,” she said. “It keeps me awake that they knew everything I was doing. Where I was, who I was speaking with, my private thoughts and actions, at any moment they wanted. Unless there are consequences for countries and their enablers which abuse this technology, none of us are safe.”
The threat by mercenary spyware companies and malware is too serious to ignore.
“It has taken us too long to have this conversation,” concluded Railton. His testimony included several suggestions for Congress (22:15):
Video starts at Sen. Mike Lee's questioning of FBI Director Wray (1:02:00 mark).
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) neatly summarized the FBI’s spotty observance of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), up for reauthorization next year, in his questioning of FBI Director Christopher Wray. Sen. Lee’s questions follow up on the revelation that the FBI used U.S. person information in FISA queries some 3.4 million times in a recent one-year period.
Sen. Lee said:
“As you know, Director Wray, Section 702 authorizes the collection of electronic communications. Not just the metadata but the content of the communications themselves, including communications of non-U.S. persons outside the United States. But, as you know, this inevitably leads to the incidental collection of communications that involve or include U.S. persons, including U.S. citizens.”
The Utah senator reminded Director Wray that the 2018 reauthorization of Section 702 required the FBI to obtain an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to authorize querying the database for communications involving U.S. persons and citizens in criminal investigations not involving national security. Why then, Sen. Lee asked, did a recently released transparency report estimate that the FBI did not obtain a single order under section 702 from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2021?
The FBI itself, after all, identified at least four instances in which the electronic communications of U.S. persons “were unlawfully searched without the required order from the Court?” Sen. Lee asked: “Can you tell me how you found those four instances and how you can be certain that there are not more than four instances in which someone did a backdoor search of U.S. persons’ communications?”
The FBI Director said he could not recall the “various oversight mechanisms we have.” He noted that the FBI set up a new office of internal audit focused on FISA compliance.
Sen. Mike Lee replied that he understood these authorities are needed to protect the American people.
“But when it comes to American citizens, they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. When you have that much ability to collect that much information, record that many conversations of unsuspecting, law-abiding American citizens, there really do have to be procedures in place to make sure that there is probable cause and a probable cause-based warrant in order to search those, because that really is just a backdoor search and a potential end run around the Fourth Amendment.”
Senator Lee expressed skepticism that the four known surveillances of Americans did not require a FISC order. And said he would hold Director Wray to his promise to provide more information.
If you are ever a witness before a Congressional committee, the trick to surviving a contentious hearing is to run out the clock with smooth talking. Each committee member only has five minutes to ask questions. An expert witness will often respond to a precise and penetrating question by taking up minutes with a Wikipedia-level recitation of a law or process, wrapped within pleasing-sounding banalities and blandishments.
Even within time constrictions in facing a polished witness, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), long-time watcher of the watchers, managed to challenge the Department of Justice on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in the recent House Judiciary Committee hearing. Rep. Lofgren refused to be brushed off (29 minutes mark) by the Department of Justice’s top national security official, Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen, concerning the FBI’s use of Section 702 information – collected to catch foreign terrorists and spies – against Americans.
Rep. Lofgren began by noting that FISA Court Judge James E. Boasberg had found that the FBI improperly searched Americans’ personal information collected without a warrant. Some of these were run-of-the-mill criminal investigations involving healthcare fraud, bribery, and other purported crimes unrelated to national security.
Rep. Lofgren added that in Dec. 2020 to Nov. 2021, the FBI searched the personal identifiers of known Americans in 702 data some 3.4 million times. This was triple the number from the previous year. As PPSA has reported, that amounts to more than 9,300 searches by the personal identifiers of Americans every day.
Rep. Lofgren noted that when Olsen went before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation, he pledged that “restoring and maintaining trust in the FISA process was a critical priority.” She asked him what he has done since to prevent warrantless, improper, backdoor searches of Americans’ data conducted under Section 702?
After taking time to give a topline description of the law, Olsen admitted that the “issues you cite are ones of concern” and promised to improve FBI compliance with training and by upgrading FBI computer systems. “We are looking forward to improving the compliance record of the Department of Justice and the FBI in regard to Section 702,” Olsen said, “and I can assure you it is a priority.”
Rep. Lofgren had a sharp reply.
“We have had reassurances over the years and yet the performance continues to be poor, and it has been poor under both Republican and Democratic Administrations,” she said. “We have considered imposing a warrant requirement for queries of known Americans … probably a necessity unless we can get some further, definitive control of the warrantless search of Americans in the 702 database.”
Rep. Lofgren added that using Section 702 to conduct warrantless searches on Americans is “improper and yet it continues.” Olsen replied that Section 702 permits the creation of a database of non-U.S. persons overseas, and that when the FBI searches, it does so to simply find “connections,” not to target Americans.
Rep. Lofgren’s retort was sharp: “That is contrary to the report that we got from ODNI and from the FISA Court.”
As Section 702 faces reauthorization next year, civil libertarians should continue to press Rep. Lofgren’s questions and urge Congress to consider an explicit warrant requirement when queries target Americans.
PPSA'S Goodlatte Testifies at House Judiciary Committee's Hearing On Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act
Bob Goodlatte, PPSA Senior Policy Advisor, returns to the House Judiciary Committee, which he once chaired, to explain how the government sidesteps the constitutional requirement for a probable cause warrant by simply buying our personal digital information from private data brokers. He also discusses the need to pass The Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act. You can read his testimony or listen to him testify, beginning at the 14:26 mark.