Utility giants agree to no longer share sensitive records ICE used to track the public

Legal advocates cheer the closing of a ‘dangerous’ loophole: ‘The data never should have been used in this way.

A nationwide group of utility companies that provided sensitive data from millions of Americans’ cable, phone and power bills to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other government agencies has agreed to end the practice in response to concerns the information was being misused to track the general public.

After the sales were revealed in February by The Washington Post, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pushed the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange to end the sale of more than 170 million people’s names, home addresses, Social Security numbers and other details gathered from companies selling the essential elements of modern life.

The exchange had given the information, known as utility header data, to the credit bureau Equifax, which then sold it for use in databases, such as Thomson Reuters’ CLEAR, that are searched by private investigators, government agencies and the police.

In October, the exchange directed Equifax to stop selling new data, Wyden said in a letter Wednesday to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the government agency charged with protecting consumer interests. Customer data from before October, however, remains available for review.

Wyden, a longtime critic of government surveillance, called on the CFPB to further rein in a data-broker industry that he said had spun “out of control” due in part to “vague and undefined regulations.” He urged the agency to aggressively investigate how data gathered for commercial purposes was ending up in the hands of law enforcement without court approval or oversight.

“Selling personal information that people provide to sign up for power, water and other necessities of life, and giving them no choice in the matter, is an egregious abuse of consumers’ privacy,” Wyden wrote. “The personal privacy of hundreds of millions of people should not depend upon the goodwill of corporations worried about negative headlines.”

The NCTUE told The Washington Post in a statement that it had “worked with its members to end the practice of licensing members’ header data to third parties. We’re committed to following the law and we routinely revisit our policies and practices to strike the right balance between consumer privacy and those seeking credit.”

The NCTUE has said it shares consumers’ data among member companies so they can better assess people’s payment histories and creditworthiness. But in his letter, Wyden said some of the utility companies “had no idea that their customers’ data was being sold” by Equifax “without consumers’ knowledge or consent.”

Equifax, one of America’s three major credit-reporting bureaus, said in a statement that NCTUE had for years allowed it to license the data “for law enforcement purposes in compliance with all laws.” The company said the change would “hinder our efforts to expand access to credit and protect against fraud.” NCTUE said it does not have a similar data-sharing arrangement with the other two credit bureaus, Experian and TransUnion.

The data was bundled and sold for use in databases like CLEAR, an “investigation software” service that Thomson Reuters offers via subscriptions to police departments, law firms and government agencies such as ICE, which has paid tens of millions of dollars to access the data.

ICE did not respond to requests for comment. The agency has previously declined to comment on its “investigative techniques.”

The information, which people often submitted in applications or other filings with their local utility companies, could be used to track where a person lived, where they’d moved from, whom they’d lived with and other details.

Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior campaign organizer at the Latino civil rights group Mijente, said the change was a “huge step in the right direction” and said some of the people her group has worked with have “legitimately been asking and worried about this.” Most, she said, did not realize that information would be made available to federal agents and the police.

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Drew Harwell