The DHS Bought a ‘Shocking Amount’ of Phone-Tracking Data

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For years, people they have not been asked if, but how much, the Department of Homeland Security accesses mobile location data to monitor U.S. citizens. This week, the American Civil Liberties Union released thousands of pages of highly-written documents that offer a “vision” of how DHS agencies took advantage of “a shocking amount” of location data, apparently buying data without following protocols. appropriate to ensure that they had the authority to do so.

The documents were shared with the ACLU “over the past year through a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).” Politico then had access and released a report confirming that DHS contracted with two surveillance companies, Babel Street and Venntel, to track hundreds of millions of mobile phones from 2017 to 2019 and access “more than 336,000 location data in North America “. The collection of emails, contracts, spreadsheets, and presentation slides provide evidence that “the Trump administration’s immigration agents used mobile location data to track people’s movements to a larger scale than previously known, ”and the practice has continued under Biden due to a contract that did not expire until 2021.

Most of the new information details an extensive contract DHS made with Venntel, a data agent that says it sells mobile location data to solve “the world’s toughest problems.” In the documents, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said Venntel’s location data helped them improve immigration enforcement and drug and drug trafficking investigations.

It’s still unclear if the practice was legal, but a DHS privacy officer was concerned enough about the legal and privacy concerns that in June 2019 DHS was ordered to “stop all projects involving Venntel data. “. It appears that the legal and privacy teams, however, reached an agreement on the terms of use, because the purchase of location data has since resumed, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement signed a new contract. of Venntel last winter which will run until June 2023.

The ACLU still describes the practice as “shady,” saying DHS agencies owe them even more documents that show even more how they are “dodging” the “Fourth Amendment” right against unreasonable government searches and confiscations by buying access and using large quantities “. volumes of information on the location of people’s cell phones silently extracted from smartphone applications. “Of particular concern, the ACLU also noted that an email from DHS’s senior director of privacy compliance went confirm that DHS “appeared to have purchased access to Venntel even though an assessment of the required privacy threshold was never approved.”

DHS did not comment on Politico’s story, and neither the DHS agencies mentioned nor the ACLU responded immediately to Ars’ request for comment.

The ACLU says no law currently prevents the sale of data to the government, but that could change soon. The ACLU endorses a bill called the Fourth Amendment is not for sale, which is designed to do so. Even if this bill is passed, the new law still provides for some exceptions that would allow government agencies to continue tracking mobile location data. The ACLU did not respond immediately to comment on any concerns about these exceptions.

How to stop tracking location data

The main issue being debated is whether a Supreme Court decision in 2017 that said police should have an order to search for cell phone data applies to government agencies like DHS. This is a gray area, says the Congressional Investigation Service, because “the Supreme Court has long recognized that the government can conduct routine inspections and searches of people entering the U.S. border without an order “and that” some federal courts have applied the “border” “search exception” to allow relatively limited manual searches on the edge of electronic devices such as computers and cell phones.

However, DHS is not the only government agency that is considered an exception. In 2021, the Defense Intelligence Agency also purchased location data without an order, avoiding the 2017 Supreme Court decision because the Department of Defense has its own “approved data management requirements by the Attorney General “.

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