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The Technology 202: Activists are suing Thomson Reuters over its sale of personal data

Comment

with Aaron Schaffer

A coalition of activists is bringing a lawsuit against media and data conglomerate Thomson Reuters, accusing the company of illegally selling data belonging to California residents without their consent. 

The privacy advocates are talking publicly for the first time about suing the company following revelations last month that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers were using a Thomson Reuters database, called CLEAR, that contained hundreds of millions of phone, water, electricity and other utility records while pursuing immigration violations. 

The advocates initially brought the suit in California Superior Court in December,  but they say they’re talking about it now after Thomson Reuters filed to remove the lawsuit to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The database includes records connected to employment, credit reports, criminal histories and vehicle registrations, from utility companies in all 50 states, as my colleague Drew Harwell reported. CLEAR is among a suite of “legal investigation software solution” products that Thomson Reuters, based in Toronto, sells to a broad range of companies and public agencies. Thomson Reuters, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has said in documents that the data about utilities comes from the credit-reporting giant Equifax. 

Cat Brooks, a Black activist who is one of the plaintiffs, said in the lawsuit that the database contains a “360-degree view of her life,” despite her efforts to protect her personal data and a subscription to a service that regularly scrubs her personal information from the Internet. She found that a wide range of personal information, including her address, cellphone number, and information about her relatives were all available in the database without her consent. 

Rasheed Shabazz, another plaintiff in the case, is a Black Muslim journalist and activist who does not want his personal information to be publicly available without his consent. Yet the CLEAR database includes his current and prior addresses, employer information, phone numbers and even a partially redacted social security number, he said in the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit claims that the company compiles similar highly detailed information about residents across California, which the privacy advocates say violate state laws. “We saw the opportunity in this lawsuit to have one of those rare wins, not just for consumer privacy but for pushing back a bit against state surveillance as well, and really showing how linked those two are,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project's founder and executive director, said in an interview. 

STOP is one of several privacy, civil rights advocacy groups and law firms filing the case, including Justice Catalyst Law, Gupta Wessler PLLC, and Gibbs Law Group LLP. 

The lawsuit highlights the growing tensions over the vast swaths of private data at the disposal of whoever buys it. 

Government agencies typically need a warrant to access customer data directly from the companies that collect it. But some have found what privacy advocates view as a workaround by looking to buy similar information from databases and brokers, a practice privacy advocates argue deserves greater scrutiny. 

Stories of ICE’s use of CLEAR and other databases have spurred privacy advocates to push for changes to state and federal law. They say they aim to ensure that the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable government searches and seizures, is being upheld in the digital age. 

Lawmakers in New York have introduced legislation aimed at reining in law enforcement searches both with and without a warrant of databases that involve people's geolocation data. 

And soon there will also be action in Washington: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told me he plans to introduce a privacy bill in the coming weeks, which would aim to stop law enforcement agencies from obtaining consumers’ personal data from brokers without a warrant.  Wyden said he believes this is an area of privacy reform where there is bipartisan support in Washington. 

“I do think that there's going to be a new focus on privacy in this session,” Wyden said in an interview. “I think as more and more states pass privacy legislation, pressure builds for Congress to finally pass federal legislation.”

There's a wide range of law enforcement agencies who are using these databases. The company has said in marketing documents that the tools have been used by police in Detroit, a credit union in California and a fraud investigator in the Midwest. Federal purchasing records show that the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Defense are among the federal agencies with ongoing contracts for CLEAR data use. 

Thomson Reuters has previously directed questions about law enforcement's use of its systems to individual agencies. 

The privacy advocates say their concerns go beyond just how law enforcement are using the databases. 

“When we look at the ways that these data brokers are remaking our country, the Fourth Amendment concerns are terrifying, but the way that they're allowing companies to track millions without the most basic consent is deeply alarming as well,” Fox Cahn said. 

Correction: This story previously said the privacy advocates brought the lawsuit following revelations in February of ICE’s use of the database. It has been updated to reflect that they filed the lawsuit initially in December. 

Our top tabs

Anti-Asian rhetoric is surging online alongside real-world violence.

Some researchers, activists and members of the Asian American community say the fatal shootings of six Asian women in Atlanta this week fit a pattern of sexist and xenophobic language on the Internet, Drew Harwell, Craig Timberg, Razzan Nakhlawi and Andrew Ba Tran report. Users on far-right online forums called the attacks a “false flag” event by gun-control activists, and they made crude, racist jokes about the shootings and their victims.

After the 2020 presidential election, terms such as “China,” “Wuhan” and “flu” surged on far-right forums, according to data tracked by the Network Contagion Research Institute. The terms were used 44 percent more in January than the average month last year.

Authorities say they do not know whether the alleged shooter, Robert Aaron Long, 21, was motivated by racial animus.

Google says it will expand across the United States as it faces political scrutiny. 

The $7 billion effort will create more than 10,000 full-time Google jobs nationwide, with a focus on 19 states, Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said in a blog post. It comes a week ahead of Pichai's appearance at a congressional hearing, where lawmakers plan to grill him and other tech CEOs about their companies' failure to crack down on dangerous falsehoods.

The announcement also comes as Google and other tech companies attempt to ingratiate themselves with the U.S. government, which sued Google last year for violations of antitrust laws. The Biden administration has brought on experts who are critical of technology companies, a possible signal that the administration will take a tough line against the industry. 

An app developer sued Apple for abusing its market power as antitrust scrutiny of the company increases.

The developer of FlickType, a keyboard for blind and visually impaired people with Apple Watches, sued the company for using its control of the App Store to banish the app to decrease its value, Reed Albergotti reports. The developers are the latest to attack Apple’s App Store, which is the only way for developers to get their apps on Apple devices. The company is facing antitrust investigations and lawsuits worldwide. 

“Apple’s promise to help developers build, test, market, and distribute their products and grow their business through a secure, trusted, and accessible marketplace is just a facade designed to wrongfully entice developers to the App Store,” the lawsuit says.

Inside the industry

Facebook says it’ll start punishing group members who break its rules (The Verge)

Amazon built its own health-care service for employees. Now it’s selling it to other companies. (Rachel Lerman)

Privacy monitor

France opens privacy investigation into audio app Clubhouse (Financial Times)

Trending

The great Amazon flip-a-thon (New York Times)

Rant and rave

Intel's hire was a few years too late, freelance designer Jeeves Williams noted:

Icon designer Louie Mantia, Jr. was a bit more blunt:

Daybook

  • Acting FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) speak at a 5G event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies today at 10 a.m.
  • European antitrust official Thomas Kramler, Facebook director for economic policy Phillip Malloch and European lawmaker Andreas Schwab speak at an event hosted by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation today at 10 a.m. The event will focus on Europe’s Digital Markets Act.
  • A House Judiciary Committee panel holds an antitrust hearing today at 2 p.m.
  • Wikimedia Foundation CEO and executive director Katherine Maher speaks at an event hosted by the Center for Global Development today at 3 p.m.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee holds a hearing on infrastructure legislation on March 22 at 11 a.m.
  • District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals judge Douglas Ginsburg speaks at a NetChoice event on antitrust and the Consumer Welfare Standard on March 22 at noon.
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testify on the spread of baseless claims online before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 25.

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