House passes bill banning Uncle Sam from snooping on citizens via data brokers

Vote met strong opposition from Biden's office

A draft law to restrict the US government's ability to procure data on citizens through data brokers will progress to the Senate after being passed in the House of Representatives.

The Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act (H.R.4639) was passed on Wednesday by a narrow 219-199 majority vote, despite fierce opposition from the White House.

The bill aims to ban the US government from purchasing data on Americans from data brokers, which currently serves as an alternative means to gather information without a warrant.

The issue has drawn much attention in recent years and the bill has divided both parties, including the Biden administration, which released a fresh statement on Tuesday strongly opposing it.

The White House's main argument against the ban is that being able to procure commercially available information (CAI) from data brokers is crucial for intelligence agencies and law enforcement.

It also argues that by banning the government from using data brokers and not any other type of entity, it does little to protect the privacy of US citizens, all while threatening national security.

The statement [PDF] reads: "The Administration has taken, and continues to take, comprehensive steps to address legitimate privacy concerns related to the unregulated proliferation of commercially available information, including Administration action to protect sensitive health and location information, and President Biden's recent Executive Order to protect Americans' sensitive personal data from countries of concern.

"The Administration looks forward to working with Congress on the responsible collection, retention, and use of commercially available information in ways that protect both privacy and national security."

Obtaining information on US citizens, such as where they work or who they're associated with, has required federal agencies to obtain a warrant per the Fourth Amendment.

However, certain agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the NSA have been circumventing citizens' constitutional rights by purchasing data from specialized brokerages, hiding behind the excuse that this data was voluntarily handed over.

The IRS was previously caught grabbing cellphone location data via a contractor and used that same excuse to justify its actions, for example.

Duke University researchers also investigated the Department of Defense's use of data brokers last year, publishing all the details in November, an excerpt of which revealed US military personnel and their families' CAI was being sold for as little as $0.12 per record.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a strong proponent of the bill, arguing that people's data is often being collected through the mobile apps they use every day, all without them being fully aware of the practice.

"The bipartisan passage of this bill is a flashing warning sign to the government that if it wants our data, it must get a warrant," said Kia Hamadanchy, senior policy counsel at ACLU.

"We hope this vote puts a fire under the Senate to protect their constituents and rein in the government's warrantless surveillance of Americans, once and for all."

US surveillance in the spotlight

Surveillance-related bills have been flying through Congress. Just last month we saw the House pass a separate bill that placed data brokers in the limelight, but this time the proposals aim to ban the sale of broker data to foreign adversaries.

The Protecting Americans' Data from Foreign Adversaries Act of 2024 was introduced in March, at the same time as the bill that proposed a TikTok ban, and in contrast to H.R.4639 received unanimous approval (414-0) from representatives.

Speaking to The Register at the time, a spokesperson for the House Energy and Commerce Committee said there were no publicly available examples of enemies purchasing US data from brokers.

However, a declassified report [PDF] from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in 2022 mentions that a "large and growing amount" of CAI could be abused by foreign powers.

Today, the Senate is expected to uphold a House vote from last week that would see an expansion of powers afforded to intelligence agencies under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

April 12 saw the House pass the Reforming Intelligence and Securing America Act (RISAA) [PDF], which plans to reinstate FISA's Section 702.

These rules are for US intelligence agencies and permit warrantless spying on communications of non-US nationals living outside of the country for the purposes of national security. If those communications also happen to include US citizens, the data is then passed into a database shared by the FBI, CIA, NSA, and National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) which each can query without the need for a warrant.

Before the RISAA bill was passed, an amendment that would have banned warrantless surveillance of US citizens failed to pass a split (212-212) vote.

Another amendment, which would broaden the definition of electronic communications service providers, the subjects of Section 702 data requests, passed without issue. It means if the bill becomes law, US intelligence agencies will have a broader selection of organizations from which they can extract information.

The proposed expansion of powers have been opposed by groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU, which comes as little surprise given the historic abuses of FISA powers that have been publicized, some of which were on a huge scale. ®

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