Port: 'We are fast approaching a surveillance state,' Rep. Armstrong warns colleagues

"The federal government has realized the value of the massive amounts of commercial consumer data that is freely available on the open market," Rep. Kelly Armstrong said.

Congressman Kelly Armstrong
Congressman Kelly Armstrong addresses the North Dakota Republican Party's 2022 state convention in Bismarck on April 2, 2022.
Photo by Kyle Martin

MINOT, N.D. — I'll admit to being dubious about the newly formed House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. Like so much of what takes place in Washington, D.C., it seems like another example of partisan ax-grinding. Just more gotcha politics under the thin veneer of congressional oversight.

But Congressman Kelly Armstrong seems intent on using his place on this committee to pursue an imminent and very tangible problem. Specifically, the federal government doing an end-run around our Fourth Amendment protections using consumer data purchased from the private sector.

During the inaugural meeting of the committee earlier this month, which featured much of the unserious hoopla we've come to expect from members of Congress, Rep. Armstrong put his finger on a very serious issue worthy of the attention of Congress. He pointed out that private sector companies are accumulating massive amounts of data about us — from our shopping habits to our pictures to our movements about our communities — and that the federal government doesn't need your permission, or even a warrant, to access this information.

All they have to provide is money.

"The federal government has realized the value of the massive amounts of commercial consumer data that is freely available on the open market," Armstrong said.


"We are fast approaching a surveillance state with no assurances other than the promises of our government that it will not abuse this tremendous responsibility," he continued.

What sort of stuff are we talking about?

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention purchased location tracking data to monitor compliance with lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. The IRS has purchased similar data to help with enforcement efforts .

Most of you have GPS capabilities on your phones. You've probably used it to find your way to a friend's house in an unfamiliar community or track down the nearest gas station, so you know how precise this data is.

Now imagine the federal government buying data like that, in bulk.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right to be "secure" in our "persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." But what's happening here isn't a search. We're voluntarily giving up data to various services and apps, usually through those densely-worded user agreements none of us take the time to read, and those companies are selling the data to brokers.

Who, in turn, are selling it to others, including the government.

"The government can buy business records without a warrant or any cause," says Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "The Fourth Amendment does not apply."


It's become an enormous business. An estimated $200 billion industry as of 2020 , though that number has almost certainly ballooned in the intervening years, and that number was probably low even in 2020 when you consider the scope of the product. Even in 2014, nearly a decade ago, the Federal Trade Commission reported that a single data broker was accumulating some 3 billion new data points every month .

I'm not sure there's anything the government should do, or can do, about Americans voluntarily giving up so much data to the tech industry. We could probably do more to help Americans (including this one) understand just what's being tracked, but I'm not sure that's going to make much of a difference.

For better or worse, we've traded a good deal of privacy for the modern conveniences of information, communication, and entertainment.

But Congress can, absolutely, draw some red lines around what of this information our government can access, and under what circumstances.

That's a debate worth having.

That's a debate Congressman Armstrong seemingly wants to have.

If only we could get the circus in Washington to focus on this kind of issue, and not the latest culture war fad.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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