ICE Is Buying Up Massive Troves of Cell Phone Location Data… For Some Reason

·3 min read
Credit: George Frey/Getty Images
Credit: George Frey/Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security is purchasing cell phone location data on a massive scale, according to documents released by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Per the documents, hundreds of thousands of location points across North America have been attained by DHS. Purchasing the information from private businesses would help circumvent legal requirements to obtain a warrant.

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The documents were obtained by the ACLU as part of a lawsuit filed in 2020 demanding “DHS, CBP, and ICE to release information about their purchase and use of precise cell phone location information.”

Per the documents, law enforcement agencies have secured contracts with data harvesting companies like Venntel and Babel Street. These firms gather user location data through common apps installed on mobile phones.

The documents span from 2017 to 2019, and indicate that more than 336,000 location data points were available to law enforcement. There are concerns that the information revealed the filing is only a small portion of DHS and CPB’s use of the data, when Venntel pitched federal agencies on their product, they highlighted their data collection pool included 250 million mobile devices and could secure upwards of 15 billion location data points a day. While identifying user data should theoretically be unavailable to law enforcement, a review of the documents by Politico identified an exchange in which a representative from Venntel reassured ICE that “there are derived means by which identifiers and pertinent location can be assembled.”

Shreya Tewari — Brennan fellow for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project — told Politico that users granting location permissions to applications on their phones are “not expecting that that’s going to be potentially creating this massive database of their entire location history that’s available to the government at any time.”

“The Supreme Court has made clear that because our cell phone location history reveals so many ‘privacies of life,’ it is deserving of full Fourth Amendment protection,” the ACLU said via a statement from ACLU deputy director Nathan Freed Wessler.

A separate report from Vice found that Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) has used data gathered by Venntel and Babel Street to aid investigations by state and local law enforcement agencies. The documents also reveal that HSI has provided information to local field offices, including Knoxville, New York, Detroit, El Paso, Houston, Miami, Phoenix, Seattle, San Antonio, and Washington D.C.

HSI officials have communicated with each other regarding finding addresses using Venntel data points, one HSI official wrote that the Venntel licenses should be used only in criminal investigations and are not intended for use as an immigration enforcement tool. According to the internal communications revealed in the documents, the tools do not provide law enforcement with the identity of individuals whose data is reviewed, and a subpoena is still needed to access that information.

While the documents explore law enforcement’s use of the harvested data under the Trump administration, the practice is expected to continue. Despite a June 2019 order from DHS’s  acting privacy officer to ““stop all projects involving Venntel data,” both Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement signed new contracts with Venntel through 2023.

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