The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has released thousands of pages of never-before-seen documents, which reveal how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is buying access to location data from millions of American cell phones.
Warrantless buying by various parts of DHS — including Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in 2020.
In response to the news, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with DHS, ICE, and CBP, followed by respective legal action.
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While the litigation is still ongoing, the union has decided to release the records that CBP, ICE, the US Secret Service, the US Coast Guard and several DHS headquarters offices have provided to date.
Companies providing location data to DHS
Records show that DHS used millions of taxpayer dollars to purchase access to cell phone location information from two data brokers: Venntel and Babel Street.
According to documents received by the ACLU, Venntel collects more than 15 billion location points from more than 250 million cell phones and other mobile devices. all daytime.
How the data is used
According to the company’s marketing brochure, law enforcement can use this data to “identify observed devices at places of interest, regular visitors, frequented locations, identify known associates” and “uncover patterns of life”.
A 2018 internal DHS document also raised privacy concerns for people living near US borders. He offered to use Venntel location data to “identify patterns of illegal immigration”.
And another request to DHS from a local Cincinnati police department asked for an analysis of location data related to opioid overdoses in its jurisdiction.
Alarmingly, both proposals are based on the premise that law enforcement can indiscriminately suck up sensitive information from people who are simply going about their daily lives.
Minimize the use of location data for tracking purposes
Faced with the obvious privacy implications, data brokers have sought to downplay their actions.
First, the documents characterize phone location data as a simple “digital escape”, which does not contain personal identifying information (PII), but is attached to a digital identifier.
This hides the fact that phone numbers are tied to identity information, not to mention the amount of data shared just by logging into Google.
Second, data brokers claim that phone users themselves voluntarily disclose their location when consenting to GPS data permissions.
This is the perfect gray area for data agencies and government agencies to exploit.
Users don’t always know how many apps on their phones collect GPS information or (reasonably) expect that data to be sold to governments for surveillance.
Yet the agencies’ goal is so explicit that even DHS employees have expressed privacy concerns about purchasing software from Venntel and Babel Street.
The imperative of federal privacy laws
The government’s warrantless search and use of personal location data is a flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment.
For that reason, the ACLU is urging Congress to pass the Fourth Amendment Act is not for sale — a bipartisan proposal introduced last year and co-signed by nearly 20 Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.
The bill would require the US government to obtain a warrant before obtaining data from companies like Venntel and Babel Street.
Hopefully this can help hasten the end of mass surveillance once and for all – but we’re not holding our breath.