Over the years, people Not to know if the Department of Homeland Security has access to mobile location data to monitor U.S. citizens, but to know how much. This week, the American Civil Liberties Union released thousands of pages of heavily redacted documents that provide a “glance” into how DHS agencies are exploiting a “staggering amount” of location data, apparently without following proper protocols to ensure they have such the power to do.
The document was shared with the ACLU “through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit last year.” Politico then gained access and released a report confirming that the Department of Homeland Security had contracts with two surveillance companies, Babel Street and Venntel, to search hundreds of millions of cellphones from 2017 to 2019 and access “North American over 336,000 location data points”. The collection of emails, contracts, spreadsheets and presentation slides provides evidence that “the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement agents use mobile location data to track people’s movements on a larger scale than previously known” and Den’s practice continues as a contract does not expire until 2021.
Most of the new information details an extensive contract between the Department of Homeland Security and data broker Venntel, which says it sells mobile location data to solve “the world’s most challenging problems.” U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said in the filing that Venntel’s location data helped them improve immigration enforcement and investigations into human trafficking and drugs.
Still, the ACLU described the practice as “shady,” saying the DHS agency still owes them more documents that would further show how they are “dodging” against government unreasonable searches by buying and using huge assets and the Fourth Amendment of Seizures. Massive amounts of people’s cell phone location information quietly extracted from smartphone apps. Of particular concern, the ACLU also noted that an email from DHS’ senior director of privacy compliance confirmed that DHS “appears to have purchased access to Venntel, despite the required privacy threshold.” The assessment was never approved. “
The Department of Homeland Security did not comment on Politico’s report, and neither the DHS agency mentioned nor the ACLU did not immediately respond to Ars’ requests for comment.
The ACLU said there is currently no law against the sale of data to the government, but that could change soon. The ACLU approved a bill called the Fourth Amendment No-Sale Act, which aims to do just that. Still, even if the bill passes, the new law would provide some exceptions that would allow government agencies to continue tracking mobile location data. The ACLU did not immediately respond to comment on any concerns about the exceptions.
How to stop location data tracking
The main issue being debated is whether a Supreme Court rule made in 2017 that police must obtain a warrant to search cellphone data applies to government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security. The Congressional Research Service said this is a gray area because “the Supreme Court has long recognized that the government may conduct routine inspections and searches of individuals entering the U.S. border without a warrant” and that “some federal courts A ‘boundary search exception’ has been applied to allow relatively limited manual searches at the boundaries of electronic devices such as computers and mobile phones.”
DHS isn’t the only government agency that sees itself as an exception, though. In 2021, the Defense Intelligence Agency also made unauthorized purchases of location data, bypassing a 2017 Supreme Court ruling because the Defense Department had its own “Attorney General-approved data processing requirements.”