Data brokers are undermining country’s safety, privacy and security

In Jersey and beyond, our law enforcement, judges and elected officials are putting both their privacy and lives on the line to serve. We must take steps in Congress and beyond to protect the well-being of those who choose to work for the people.

New Jersey saw the acute need for privacy for our public officials in 2020, after witnessing the senseless killing of 20-year-old Daniel Anderl. Daniel’s killer targeted his mother, U.S. District Judge Esther Salas, and located her family because their address was publicly available. Tragically, she became a target because of her public service.

In response, the state of New Jersey took action and passed “Daniel’s Law,” which created protections to ensure the sensitive data of public servants and their families would not be publicly accessible. The law also targeted third-party data brokers who make billions of dollars each by selling people’s personal information, including public officials’.

Now, four years later, Daniel’s Law is recklessly being undermined by data brokers yet again — this time, endangering our law enforcement. Recently, more than 18,000 New Jersey law enforcement personnel filed a class action lawsuit against LexisNexis Risk Data Management, one arm of a sprawling empire. These officers claim that LexisNexis retaliated against them after exercising their right to remove personal, identifying information under Daniel’s Law. LexisNexis allegedly froze their credit, falsely claiming the officers were identity theft victims, and seriously hurt their credit histories.

This case illustrates a fundamental problem. Data brokers’ sprawling influence over the lives of American consumers undermines our safety, privacy and security. These brokers influence Americans’ credit history, which in turn impacts their ability to access credit, insurance services, mortgages and health care. Individuals who want to shield their data from brokers, including the law enforcement personnel from New Jersey, have a lot to lose if something goes wrong. And, their only recourse is the courts, which is both expensive and slow. We need stronger industry guardrails to protect consumers and ensure due process.

These brokers don’t just have influence over the lives of everyday Americans; they are closely intertwined with the federal government and the private sector. For example, LexisNexis is part of a $34 million contract with the federal government to verify individual identities of anyone using, the government’s single sign-on service used to access important government services at the state and federal level. Recent reporting also revealed how LexisNexis is also selling consumers’ driving data to insurers without their knowledge, which allows insurers to charge higher rates based on data such as their braking habits and trips taken. With such sprawling interests, data brokers are hard to monitor and hold accountable.

To be clear, data protection is a security issue — at the local and national level. As national security adviser Jake Sullivan recently emphasized, “Our strategic competitors see Big Data as a strategic asset.” Our adversaries are eager to exploit vulnerabilities and access data. Unfortunately, data brokers open the door to such vulnerabilities.

A recent study from Duke University showed that anyone, including people using foreign domain names, could purchase personal information on active military service members, including name, home address, email, cell phone numbers and more. In some particularly egregious cases, data brokers like LexisNexis have been implicated for selling the information of our troops to adversaries. That’s deeply concerning.

We need to take action to make sure that data brokers don’t undermine the security of Americans, especially our public officials. That is why I applaud President Joe Biden’s administration for taking action in the form of a recent Executive Order to protect Americans’ sensitive data from being sold to our foreign adversaries. In Congress, I’m looking for ways to set up guardrails for data protection and privacy.

Service shouldn’t come at the price of privacy. We must ensure that data brokers act responsibly and put Americans’ safety, security and privacy first.

U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat, represents New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District and is co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.