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New Docs Confirm NSA Bulk Buying of Americans' Internet Browsing Data

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NSA is buying Americans’ internet browsing records

Newly published documents confirm that the National Security Agency (NSA) has purchased records of Americans' internet browsing and mobile app usage from third-party data brokers. The evidence was disclosed by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), a long-time privacy advocate on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In a letter addressed to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Sen. Wyden expressed urgency in stopping intelligence agencies from acquiring Americans' personal data that was obtained illegally by data brokers. He cited a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) order stating that consumers' informed consent is required before selling their information.

According to the Senator's office, the released documents prove the NSA buys data on citizens' web browsing, which can expose details like mental health treatment, domestic abuse victim support sites, reproductive health interests, and more.

For nearly three years, Sen. Wyden fought to confirm the NSA routinely purchases Americans' internet records in bulk. He succeeded in making the agency's practices public only after threatening to delay the appointment of NSA Director Lt. General Haugh.

In his letter to the Director of National Intelligence, Sen. Wyden insisted that the administration implement a policy whereby intelligence agencies may only obtain Americans' data that meets FTC standards for lawful sale - meaning with affirmative user consent.

That order stated that data brokers must obtain consumers' informed consent before selling their personal information. Currently, Sen. Wyden contends, that no data brokers provide the disclosures mandated by the FTC.

The Senator also urged the intelligence community to take the following steps:

  • Conduct an inventory of all personal data purchased about Americans, including location data and internet browsing records
  • Determine which data sources meet the FTC's legal data sale standards
  • Purge any data that fails to meet the legal threshold

This is not the first time Sen. Wyden has exposed questionable surveillance practices by government agencies. 

In 2021, he revealed that the Defense Intelligence Agency was purchasing and searching Americans' location data harvested from mobile phones. Wyden has criticized these warrantless searches as an end-run around Fourth Amendment protections.

Sen. Wyden's revelations come amid growing public concern that advancing technologies have enabled authorities to amass unprecedented amounts of private data. His proposed reforms seek to balance individual privacy and national security interests.

According to the Senator, transparency around surveillance must increase. Strengthened privacy laws, independent oversight, and rights-preserving technologies are also needed to properly safeguard civil liberties.

The documents provided by Sen. Wyden represent an important disclosure that advances the debate. But continued pressure will likely be required to enact meaningful constraints on the government's surveillance powers in the digital age.

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