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


Written by Cat Zakrzewski, THE WASHINGTON POST, March 18, 2021

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 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 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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