A crucial defense bill making its way through the United States House of Representatives may undergo an amendment that could put an end to the government’s practice of purchasing Americans’ personal information. This practice, which the Supreme Court has deemed warrantless and unconstitutional, has recently come to light in a declassified report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The bipartisan amendment, supported by lawmakers from both parties, aims to reinforce warrant requirements for surveillance data obtained from individuals’ cell phones.
Support for the amendment
Representatives Warren Davidson, a Republican from Ohio, and Sara Jacobs, a Democrat from California, have introduced the amendment and garnered support from both sides of the aisle. They argue that the government should not be allowed to bypass the Fourth Amendment by purchasing citizens’ sensitive data, regardless of whether companies are willing to sell it without a judge’s permission. Davidson emphasizes that warrantless mass surveillance infringes on constitutionally protected privacy rights.
Scope and provisions of the amendment
The Davidson-Jacobs amendment specifically targets web browsing history, internet search history, GPS coordinates, and other location information primarily derived from cell phones. It encompasses “Fourth Amendment protected information” and aims to prevent law enforcement agencies at all levels from exchanging anything of value in exchange for individuals’ data that would typically require a warrant, court order, or subpoena.
Exceptions and privacy concerns
While the amendment contains an exception for anonymized information, it recognizes that claims of data anonymization can be deceptive. Anonymized data sets can often be easily re-identified, as highlighted by the Federal Trade Commission’s Privacy and Identity Protection Division. Therefore, the amendment relies on a court’s analysis of the technicalities and fluid nature of each case to determine the reasonableness of assuming data sets are truly anonymized.
Inclusion in the National Defense Authorization Act
The amendment was introduced as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual legislation that authorizes policies and programs funded by the Pentagon’s budget. Given the contentious nature of this year’s negotiations, with a divided chamber and interparty conflicts, only a fraction of the introduced NDAA amendments has gained bipartisan support thus far.
Republican representatives Nancy Mace of South Carolina, Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, and Ben Cline of Virginia have joined Democratic representatives Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Zoe Lofgren of California, and Veronica Escobar of Texas in supporting the Davidson-Jacobs amendment. This broad bipartisan support underscores the importance of protecting citizens’ privacy rights and addressing the potential misuse of personal data by government entities.
Previous efforts and the need for reform
Sara Jacobs previously coauthored a related amendment with Warren Davidson that sought to compel the disclosure of how frequently various spy agencies within the US military purchase Americans’ smartphone and web-browsing data. However, this amendment was removed from last year’s final version of the NDAA.
The declassified report by the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, highlights the urgent need for reform. The report emphasizes that the government cannot force individuals to carry location-tracking devices at all times, but the rapid advancement of technology is creating a loophole that allows surveillance without proper justification. This situation necessitates updating outdated privacy laws and closing the gap that grants government agencies access to citizens’ personal information without sufficient safeguards.
The proposed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act presents an opportunity for Congress to address the concerns raised by the government’s purchase of Americans’ private data. With bipartisan support, this amendment seeks to protect citizens’ privacy rights and reinforce warrant requirements for the acquisition of personal information. As technology continues to outpace privacy laws, it
is crucial for lawmakers to take action and ensure that individuals’ constitutional rights are upheld in the digital age. The ongoing debate and negotiations surrounding the NDAA will determine the fate of this amendment and its potential impact on safeguarding Americans’ privacy.