AP Exclusive: Data Brokers Get by Subpoenas
Tuesday, June 20, 2006; 8:09 PM
WASHINGTON -- Federal and local police across the country _ as well as some of the nation's best-known companies _ have been gathering Americans' phone records from private data brokers without subpoenas or warrants.
These brokers, many of whom market aggressively on the Internet, have broken into customer accounts online, tricked phone companies into revealing information and sometimes acknowledged that their practices violate laws, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Legal 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. Marshals Service _ and municipal police departments in California, Florida, Georgia and Utah. Experts believe hundreds of other departments frequently use such services.
"We are requesting any and all information you have regarding the above cell phone account and the account holder ... including account activity and the account holder's address," Ana Bueno, a police investigator in Redwood City, Calif., wrote in October to PDJ Investigations of Granbury, Texas.
An agent in Denver for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Anna Wells, sent a similar request on March 31 on Homeland Security stationery: "I am looking for all available subscriber information for the following phone number," Wells wrote to a corporate alias used by PDJ.
Congressional investigators estimated the U.S. government spent $30 million last year buying personal data from private brokers. But that number likely understates the breadth of transactions, since brokers said they rarely charge law enforcement agencies.
A lawmaker who has investigated the industry said Monday he was concerned about data brokers.
"There's a good chance there are some laws being broken, but it's not really clear precisely which laws, said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., head of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee that plans to begin hearings Wednesday.
Documents gathered by Whitfield's committee show data brokers use trickery, impersonation and even technology to try to gather Americans' phone records. "They can basically obtain any information about anybody on any subject," Whitfield said.
James Bearden, a Texas lawyer who represents four such data brokers, likened the companies' activities to the National Security Agency, which reportedly compiles the phone records of ordinary Americans.
"The government is doing exactly what these people are accused of doing," Bearden said. "These people are being demonized. These are people who are partners with law enforcement on a regular basis."