Federal and local police across the nation have been gathering Americans’ phone records from private data brokers without subpoenas or warrants, the Associated Press reports. The brokers, many of whom market aggressively across the Internet, have broken into customer accounts online, tricked phone companies into revealing information, and sometimes acknowledged that their practices violate laws. Experts and privacy advocates said police reliance on private vendors who commit such acts raises civil-liberties questions. Those using data brokers include agencies of the Homeland Security and Justice departments — including the FBI and U.S. Marshal’s Service — and municipal police departments in California, Florida, Georgia, and Utah. Hundreds of other departments frequently use such services.
A Denver U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, Anna Wells, said March 31 on Homeland Security stationery: “I am looking for all available subscriber information for the following phone number” to to a corporate alias used by PDJ Investigations of Granbury, Tx. Congressional investigators estimate the U.S. government spent $30 million last year buying personal data from private brokers. James Bearden, a Texas lawyer who represents four data brokers, likened the companies’ activities to the National Security Agency. “The government is doing exactly what these people are accused of doing,” he said. “These people are being demonized. These are people who are partners with law enforcement on a regular basis.”