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The Snooping Goes Beyond Phone Calls

How the government sidesteps the Privacy Act by purchasing commercial data

Furor and confusion over allegations that major phone companies have surrendered customer calling records to the National Security Agency continue to roil Washington. But if AT&T Inc. (T ) and possibly others have turned over records to the NSA, the phone giants represent only one of many commercial sources of personal data that the government seeks to "mine" for evidence of terrorist plots and other threats.

The Departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security spend millions annually to buy commercial databases that track Americans' finances, phone numbers, and biographical information, according to a report last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Often, the agencies and their contractors don't ensure the data's accuracy, the GAO found.