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A smart, new law would close a big loophole in federal government’s right to snoop on you

Nothing stops the government from buying our personal information from third parties that get it from the big tech companies or elsewhere, sometimes without permission.

A woman looks at a smart phone with a Facebook App logo displayed on the background in 2021 in Arlington, Virginia. Third-party companies sometimes collect personal information information gathered by companies such as Facebook and sell it to the government.
Olivier Douliery/Getty

When the federal government is in a snooping mood, it can’t just go to big tech companies and buy all the personal information they collect on us each day. There are rules against that.

But nothing stops the government from buying that same information from third parties that get it from the big tech companies or elsewhere, sometimes without permission. A company called Venntel, for example, sells location data from users’ cell phones to government agencies. Another company, Clearview AI, has scooped up facial recognition images from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube and sells that information to the government.

That kind of once-removed government surveillance puts the privacy of every American at risk.

There are times — legitimate times — when the government needs such highly personal information to pursue or prevent wrongdoing. But that’s what judges and warrants and special courts are for. There is a process for balancing privacy and government needs.

But to allow the government to peek into our private lives just out of curiosity takes us down a dangerous road.

To protect Americans’ privacy, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, and others in Congress are sponsoring “The Fourth Amendment is Not for Sale Act.” The Fourth Amendment is the one that guarantees the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

The bill would require the federal government to follow rules already spelled out in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which regulates law enforcement, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which regulates intelligence agencies. Those laws didn’t anticipate the pervasive rise of third-party data brokers.

In recent years, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have tapped into the fathomless dossiers on almost everyone, much of it scraped up by third-party companies with no accountability. But government has no business going on fishing expeditions, unchecked by warrants or judges, into the private lives of presumed innocent persons.

Earlier laws to rein in such indefensible government snooping have been left in the dust by the rapid advance of technology. The new law, closing a loophole, is overdue.

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