The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has acknowledged for the first time that it purchased US location data rather than obtaining a warrant. While the practice of buying people’s location data has grown increasingly common since the US Supreme Court reined in the government’s ability to warrantlessly track Americans’ phones nearly five years ago, the FBI had not previously revealed ever making such purchases.
The disclosure came today during a US Senate hearing on global threats attended by five of the nation’s intelligence chiefs. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, put the question of the bureau’s use of commercial data to its director, Christopher Wray: “Does the FBI purchase US phone-geolocation information?” Wray said his agency was not currently doing so, but he acknowledged that it had in the past. He also limited his response to data companies gathered specifically for advertising purposes.
“To my knowledge, we do not currently purchase commercial database information that includes location data derived from internet advertising,” Wray said. “I understand that we previously—as in the past—purchased some such information for a specific national security pilot project. But that’s not been active for some time.” He added that the bureau now relies on a “court-authorized process” to obtain location data from companies.