A data broker shared billions of phone location records with the District of Columbia government for coronavirus tracking last year, according to public records obtained by the digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
The broker company, Veraset, shared the data with D.C. officials as part of a free trial that was ultimately not turned into a full contract. The data was authorized only for coronavirus tracking and did not include names or other personal details about individuals, according to the EFF.
There was no evidence of misuse, though the EFF argued that the case shows potential for abuse of information collected and sold by data brokers.
“Veraset’s data is harvested from users without meaningful consent, and is monetized by giving corporations and businesses detailed information about the day-to-day movements of millions of people,” EFF staff technologist Bennett Cyphers wrote in a blog post.
“At a minimum, DC should have performed more vetting of Veraset’s sources, implemented stronger privacy protections, and justified the acquisition of such sensitive data.”
The D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer and The Lab @ DC, a division of the Office of the City Administrator, both uploaded the data from Veraset to the District’s unified data storage and sharing system.
According to emails obtained by EFF, local officials “didn’t find a use case” for the information.
Data brokers — which collect information from a wide variety of sources, package it and sell it to government and private companies alike — have come under scrutiny in recent years.
The purchase of data on individuals by government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and Defense Intelligence Agency, without a warrant has garnered particular attention from lawmakers.
Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill Democrats push tax credits to bolster clean energy Five reasons for concern about Democrats' drug price control plan MORE (D-Ore.), who introduced legislation earlier this year requiring warrants for such purchases, said that data brokers are trying to exploit the pandemic to launder their reputations.
“It’s no surprise that shady data brokers want to exploit the pandemic to put a positive spin on their sale of Americans’ private information to the government,” the Oregon lawmaker said in a statement to The Hill. “The unregulated trade in detailed location data creates serious safety risks for American families.”
The Hill has reached out to the Washington government for comment.