Sales of citizen data worries lawmakers and experts alike

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Expert witnesses expressed support for bills that close loopholes in existing laws, which currently allow government purchase of private data.

A House committee examined government practices in civilian data collection Tuesday, with a notable emphasis on digital privacy and health data security in the wake of the Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson case ruling. 

A panel of experts working within the digital privacy law and advocacy arena testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. Many of the witnesses and committee members criticized data brokers, or companies that sell sensitive personal information.

“The fact that our data is being collected is an underlying problem, and we need to do something about that.” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said during the hearing. Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., agreed, citing the problematic contracts federal law enforcement enter into with data brokers, including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“This data tracking is…it means that people who are pregnant and seeking access to medical care [are] extraordinarily vulnerable to having their data sold to vigilantes as well as provided voluntarily to law enforcement or obtained by law enforcement across state lines,” said witness Rebecca Wexler, co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology and an assistant law professor. She advocated that the committee work to block federal and local law enforcement from accessing abortion-relevant data through evidentiary privileges via privacy statutes. 

Nadler added that these data collection practices can inadvertently target innocent civilians in criminal investigations. 

“The problem is not limited to the purchase of data,” he said in opening remarks. “So-called reverse search warrants allow law enforcement agencies to make broad requests for a company's data, such as every person who searched for a specific term, or every person who was in a particular place over some period of time, totally upending traditional notions of a narrowly tailored warrant based on probable cause.”

The hearing also discussed the sensitive nature of parlaying this data collection into a means of surveillance. Witness Elizabeth Goitein, a senior director at the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute, called biometrics like facial recognition “one of the scariest technologies out there.”

“It could wipe out any form of anonymity that we have in our society,” Goitein told Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, citing China’s usage of biometrics as a means to digitally monitor minority populations like the Uighur Muslim community as an abuse of emerging biometric technologies. 

Witness and former representative Hon. Bob Goodlatte, who now works as a senior policy advisor for the Project for Privacy & Surveillance Accountability expressed— along with Wexler—support for the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, a House companion bill proposed by both Nadler and Lofgren in 2021. They argued that it would close existing loopholes that allow government entities to purchase civilian data from external, private brokers. 

“The government is exploiting the resulting legal loopholes to obtain Americans’ most sensitive information without a warrant, subpoena, or any legal process whatsoever,” Goitien stated. 

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