The Federal Bureau of Investigation has secretly demanded access to a whole bunch of consumer credit information and data. Recently revealed documents prove that the FBI wants access to troves of financial information from the nation’s largest credit agencies.
According to a report by Tech Crunch, this is a regular thing for the FBI. The government agency regularly uses these legal powers (known as national security letters) to compel credit giants to turn over non-content information, such as records of purchases and locations, that the agency deems necessary in national security investigations. But these letters have no judicial oversight and are typically filed with a gag order, preventing the recipient from disclosing the demand to anyone else; including the target of the letter.
Since the law changed (lawmakers changed it to protect themselves and the government at large) in 2015 in the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures that revealed the scope of the U.S. government’s surveillance operations, recipients have been allowed to petition the FBI to be cut loose from the gag provisions and publish the letters with redactions. Only a few tech companies, including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, have disclosed that they have ever received one or more national security letters.
While tech companies have often reported to their users when government agencies have demanded their information, credit companies have not. Most of these major data collectors have failed to publish their figures altogether.
Three lawmakers — Democratic senators Ron Wyden and Elizabeth Warren, and Republican senator Rand Paul — have sent letters to Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, expressing their “alarm” as to why the credit giants have failed to disclose the number of government demands for consumer data they receive.
“Because your company holds so much potentially sensitive data on so many Americans and collects this information without obtaining consent from these individuals, you have a responsibility to be transparent about how you handle that data,” the letters said. “Unfortunately, your company has not provided information to policymakers or the public about the type or the number of disclosures that you have made to the FBI.” –Tech Crunch
It still isn’t known just how many demands credit agencies have gotten of the 500 million the FBI has made since they were given the power to access our data in 2001. The New York Times reported that the national security letters to credit agencies were a “small but telling fraction” of the overall half-million FBI-issued demands made to date.
Other banks and financial institutions, as well as universities, cell service, and internet providers, were also the targets of national security letters, the documents revealed.
The senators have given the agencies until December 27 to disclose the number of demands each has received.