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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Snooping Goes Beyond Phone Calls

How the government sidesteps the Privacy Act by purchasing commercial data
 
 
Furor and confusion over allegations that major phone companies have surrendered customer calling records to the National Security Agency continue to roil Washington. But if AT&T Inc. (T ) and possibly others have turned over records to the NSA, the phone giants represent only one of many commercial sources of personal data that the government seeks to "mine" for evidence of terrorist plots and other threats.
 
The Departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security spend millions annually to buy commercial databases that track Americans' finances, phone numbers, and biographical information, according to a report last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Often, the agencies and their contractors don't ensure the data's accuracy, the GAO found.
 
Buying commercially collected data allows the government to dodge certain privacy rules. The Privacy Act of 1974 restricts how federal agencies may use such information and requires disclosure of what the government is doing with it. But the law applies only when the government is doing the data collecting.
 
"Grabbing data wholesale from the private sector is the way agencies are getting around the requirements of the Privacy Act and the Fourth Amendment," says Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington and a member of the Homeland Security Dept.'s Data Privacy & Integrity Advisory Committee.
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