Samantha Murphy Kelly of CNN Business news has a snappy take on Amazon’s recent product press event. The company, she wrote, “knows when you’re in and out of the room. A gadget that monitors your breathing pattern while you sleep. An enhanced voice assistant that highlights just how much it knows about your everyday life.”
She notes another event where Amazon introduced drones and Astro, a dog-like robot that can patrol the home when you’re gone.
Will consumers be deterred by the creep factor of giving so much of our personal information taken from the intimacy of our homes? Kelly quotes a consumer analyst who said that “negative consumer attitudes” about data collection is lessened by the service, price, and convenience of these products.
It is easy to see why consumers are sanguine about sharing data with a company that sells products and services they like. All Amazon wants to do is to sell us even more products. Dangers emerge, however, when consumer data migrates beyond the company you’re doing business with. Amazon, for its part, says that “information about our customers is an important part of our business, and we are not in the business of selling our customers’ personal information to others.”
The company does share information with third parties, such as vendors whose goods are sold through Amazon. A recent FTC filing against the data broker Kochava shows that Amazon Web Services Marketplace allows companies to buy consumers’ IP addresses and precise geolocation histories. Amazon also encourages its Ring customers to share their data with police agencies across the country – creating a national surveillance network stitched together from more than three million cameras.
Whatever the limits of Amazon’s privacy policies, most of the other major social media platforms freely sell consumer data to brokers. Among the major customers of this data, as PPSA has endlessly reported, are the intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the U.S. government – reason why PPSA has joined with almost fifty other civil liberties organizations to call for the passage of the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act.
Your dog may follow you around the house, but she will never judge you. Not so with the many devices that are infiltrating into our lives.
Last week, PPSA reported on Fog Reveal, a product from Fog Data Science that sells billions of data points extracted from apps on 250 million mobile devices to local police departments. An unlimited-use, one-year subscription costs a department only $7,500.
For this price, Fog Reveal offers a powerful capability, the ability to track hundreds of millions of Americans in their daily movements. It allows police to locate every device in a given geo-fenced area. It also allows police to trace the location history of a single device (and therefore, its user) over months or years.
Fog Data Science claims that it is respectful of privacy because it does not reveal the names or addresses of individual users. But a slide show from Fog Data Science prepared for police highlights how this technology can easily be used to track a suspect to his or her “bed-down” over a 180-day period. (Hat tip to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which helpfully added yellow highlights to significant passages of Fog documents.)
It is more than a stretch then to call this data “anonymized” when it follows people to their homes, as well as to their houses of worship, meetings with friends or lovers, trips to health or mental health clinics, journalists meeting with whistleblowers, or other locales that reveal sensitive and personal information.
For those in law enforcement who go through the motions of filing a warrant, Fog Data Science offers a template warrant. Such warrants are misbegotten. They can be employed to follow a number of people in the vicinity of a crime or track everyone who attended a political protest. The Fourth Amendment requires “probable cause” in which a warrant describes “the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” It makes a mockery of the Constitution’s requirement for particularity when the police have at their fingertips a whole ocean of data involving many people. How can such a requirement be fulfilled when Fog technology allows police to go on a fishing expedition in that ocean, with any American potentially being a catch?
It is through technologies such as Fog Reveal that our country, device by device, is moving steadily toward becoming a full-fledged surveillance state.
Such details should spur Congress to investigate the uses of this technology. It should also inspire Congress to pass the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, which would block the auctioning of our private, personal information to all government agencies.
Agencies Avoid Answering Questions About the Purchase of Private Information of Members of Congress
Since the mid-1960s, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has allowed American citizens and civil liberties organizations to obtain unclassified documents from federal agencies, shedding light on official actions and policies. In recent years, however, the government has devised many creative ways to stall, obfuscate, and outright withhold answers to FOIA requests, while seeming to be as responsive as possible. Cato Institute scholar Patrick Eddington calls these tactics “constructive denial.”
For over two years, Cato filed FOIA requests to obtain FBI records on militia groups of the left and the right, including the white supremacist Patriot Front. “Groups like the Patriot Front,” Eddington writes in The Hill, “are, in the view of most Americans, a moral and political blight that the country would be far better off without. At the same time, the protection of offensive ideas and speech are at the heart of the purpose of the First Amendment.” Thus, Cato sought records to better understand the threat posed by these groups and the nature of the government’s response.
In defiance of FOIA’s requirement that the FBI send the requested documents to the requester himself, the FBI replied to Cato that it would eventually file the documents on an FBI website. “You will be notified when releases are available.”
In other words, buzz off.
Constructive denial can be seen in another form after PPSA filed suit against the National Security Agency, the CIA, the Department of Justice and FBI, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in June to compel the release of records pertaining to the possible purchase of the personal information of more than 100 current and former Members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees from private data brokers.
This is understandably a sensitive question, given that current and former judiciary committee lawmakers include Chairman Jerrold Nadler, Ranking Member Jim Jordan, Chairman Dick Durbin, Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Still, it would be a matter of public interest – not to mention to these legislators themselves – if the government were buying up their personal information. Such an act could yield leverage for executive branch agencies to bully leading Members of Congress, subtly undermining democracy.
The agencies’ response to PPSA’s FOIA request over summer 2021 was to issue Glomar responses, a judicially invented doctrine that neither confirms nor denies that such records exist.
Now that PPSA has sued to enforce its request, these agencies have come back with an answer that doubles down on a government theory that it would be too dangerous to national security for these agencies to even search for such documents. At the same time, government responses strike a tone of wanting to be as cooperative as possible.
One choice example: PPSA asserted a “right of prompt access to requested records under the law.” The National Security Agency responded: “To the extent that a response is required, Defendant NSA denies the allegation, including the fact that NSA has wrongfully withheld records.” This is a construction worthy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Gene Schaerr, PPSA general counsel, responds: “The government’s answers disingenuously conflate an internal search for documents with an external response to a question. The government feels free to treat FOIA as polite supplication instead of a law that must be obeyed. PPSA will continue to press on for a serious answer in federal court.”
In the meantime, expect the government to come up with many new forms of constructive denial.
A growing number of House and Senate members are supporting the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, which would require law enforcement and intelligence agencies to obtain a probable cause warrant before accessing Americans’ personal information purchased from a private-sector data broker.
But what about non-state actors buying our information?
A recent lawsuit brought against private-data broker Kochava by the Federal Trade Commission reveals the horrific exposure of Americans’ most personal data to unseen – and possibly unknown – private actors.
Kochava claims to have “rich geo data spanning billions of devices globally,” with location data feed that “delivers raw latitude/longitude data with volumes around 94B-plus billion geo transactions per month, 125 million monthly active users, and 35 million daily active users, on average observing more than 90 daily transactions per device.”
In its filing on Aug. 29, the FTC writes that a purchaser would only need to provide Kochava a personal email address and describe the intended use as “business” to gain access to your data from Kochava.
“The location data provided by Kochava is not anonymized,” the FTC filing asserts. “It is possible to use the geolocation data, combined with the mobile devices MAID (Mobile Advertising ID), to identify the mobile device’s user or owner.”
The FTC claims:
“Precise geolocation data associated with MAIDs, such as the data sold by Kochava, may be used to track consumers to sensitive locations, including places of religious worship, places that may be used to infer an LGBTQ+ identification, domestic abuse shelters, medical facilities, and welfare and homeless shelters.” It can identify women who visit reproductive clinics and people who attend services at Jewish, Christian, Islamic and other religious denominations’ places of worship.
Kochava, the FTC claims, does not employ a blacklist that removes or obfuscates data-set location signals from these sensitive locations.
The facts presented by the FTC, as alarming as they are, should not get mixed up in the separate debate on the Hill over restricting the government’s ability to purchase our private data. The many federal agencies that buy our data are not just violating our privacy. They are eviscerating the plain meaning of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which requires government to get a warrant from a court to access our personal information.
The solution to private-sector access to personal information is a deep and complex debate taking place within multiple Congressional committees and stakeholders from business and consumer groups. Passing the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act in this Congress, which would close off the government’s warrantless access to Americans’ personal information, would be a strong predicate for that next step in the privacy debate.