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ACLU: United States Feds Buying Phone Location Data To Surveil Its Citizens

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been purchasing location information from third-party vendors to circumvent the normal warrant process, According to the new documents that were released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

ACLU: United States Feds Buying Phone Location Data To Surveil Its Citizens

The documents reveal that government agencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were able to acquire large amounts of information about the location without supervision from the courts and used it to monitor the movements of millions of cell phones throughout the US.

Typically, the acquisition of data on private communications in the United States directly from companies that provide the services (i.e., telecom companies) is a requirement for a warrant that must be approved by a judge.

However, purchasing information from intermediary companies is not subject to the same restrictions.

It gives police agencies the right to gather personal data that they would not otherwise be able to access.

The amount of location data provided in the recently released documents is massive and suggests the further expansion of data acquisition executed by the agencies involved.

These documents came to the attention of the ACLU under the freedom of information laws following the filing of a lawsuit in 2020, following an investigation from The Wall Street Journal that disclosed the acquisition of location data from commercial sources by government agencies.

The records provided for review by the ACLU included the spreadsheets containing some of the location data purchased by CBP from Venntel, the vendor of the data Venntel.

Based on the ACLU’s analysis during 3 days in 2018, the spreadsheets comprise 113,654 location data points, equivalent to more than 26 locations recorded every minute.

According to Politico, In emails exchanged between Venntel and ICE, Venntel claimed that the company could be able to collect location data from over 250 million devices on the market and then process more than 15 billion data points about location each day.

Another data broker mentioned within the document includes Babel Street. Like Venntel, Babel Street obtains location information by paying developers to incorporate small portions of its code into other mobile apps.

Users often ignore these apps and transmit data to the company’s servers. The year 2021 was the last time Motherboard revealed that Venntel had signed an agreement with the Florida Department of Corrections to give information about any cell phones located near prisons owned by the state.

In the statement, Nathan Freed Wessler, the ACLU’s deputy director for its Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said that data brokers pose the privacy of individuals in a new way and, consequently, must be regulated with the help of the authorities.

“The Supreme Court has made clear that as the location history of our mobile phones exposes a myriad of privacy issues life’, it is deserving of full Fourth Amendment protection,” Wessler stated.

“Yet, here we see data brokers and government agencies tying themselves in knots trying to explain how people can lack an expectation of privacy in such obviously personal and sensitive location information. The risk of misuse being so great, Congress must step in to end this practice.”

In reality, Congress will have a chance to take over the issue in the coming days. On Tuesday next week, members of the House Judiciary Committee will hold an inquiry about “digital dragnets” and government access to sensitive information.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had earlier proposed an act that would completely ban the sale of data by brokers.

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