Government Agencies Pose as Ad Bidders
We’ve long reported on the government’s purchase of Americans’ sensitive and personal information scraped from our apps and sold to federal agencies by third-party data brokers. Closure of this data broker loophole is included in the House Judiciary Committee bill – the Protect Liberty and End Warrantless Surveillance Act – legislation that requires probable cause warrants before the federal government can inspect Americans’ data caught up in foreign intelligence under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Of no less importance, the bipartisan Protect Liberty Act also requires warrants for inspection of the huge mass of Americans’ data sold to the government.
Thanks to Ben Lovejoy of the 9 to 5 Mac, we now know of the magnitude of the need for a legislative solution to this privacy vulnerability. Apple’s 2020 move to require app makers to notify you that you’re being tracked on your iPhone has been thoroughly undermined by a workaround through the technology of device fingerprinting. Add to that Patternz, a commercial spyware that extracts personal information from ads and push notifications so it can be sold. Patternz tracks up to 5 billion users a day, utterly defeating phone-makers’ attempts to protect consumer privacy.
How does it work? 404 Media demonstrated that Patternz has deals with myriad small ad agencies to extract information from around 600,000 apps. In a now-deleted video, an affiliate of the company boasted that with this capability, it could track consumers’ locations and movements in real time. After this article was posted, Google acted against one such market participant, while Apple promises a response. But given the robustness of these tools, it is hard to believe that new corporate policies will be effective.
That is because technology allows government agencies to pose as ad buyers to turn adware into a global tracking tool that federal agencies – and presumably the intelligence services of other governments – can access at will. Patternz can even install malware for more thorough and deeper penetration of customers’ phones and their sensitive information. It is almost as insidious as the zero-day malware Pegasus, transforming phones into 24/7 spy devices.
Enter Patrick Eddington, senior fellow of the Cato Institute. He writes:
“If you’re a prospective or current gun owner and you use your smartphone to go to OpticsPlanet to look for a new red dot sight, then go to Magpul for rail and sling adapters for the modern sporting rifle you’re thinking of buying, then mosey on over to LWRC to look at their latest gas piston AR-15 offerings, and finally end up at Ammunition Depot to check out their latest sale on 5.56mm NATO standard rounds, unless those retailers expressly offer you the option ‘Do not sell my personal data’ … all of your online browsing and ordering activity could end up being for sale to a federal law enforcement agency.
“Or maybe even the National Security Agency.”
The government’s commercial acquisition of Americans’ personal information from data sales contains troubling implications for both left and right – from abortion-rights activists concerned about women being tracked to clinics, to conservatives who care about the implications of this practice for the Second Amendment or free religious expression, to Americans of all stripes who don’t want our personal and political activities monitored in minute detail by the government.
In January, the NSA admitted that it buys our personal information without a warrant. The investigative work performed by 404 Media and 9 to 5 Mac should give Members of Congress all the more reason to support the Protect Liberty Act.