The American Civil Liberties Union has published previously unreleased records about how multiple government agencies side-step the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizures.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and other parts of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) buy access to and use large volumes of people’s cell phone location information quietly extracted from smartphone apps, charged the ACLU.
The ACLU obtained files through an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, detailing how millions of taxpayer dollars were spent to buy access to cell phone location information from Venntel and Babel Street.
The ACLU claims these files “expose the companies’ — and the government’s — attempts to rationalize this unfettered sale of massive quantities of data in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court precedent protecting similar cell phone location data against warrantless government access.”
Shreya Tewari, the Brennan Fellow for ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said “These records provide critical insight into the government’s attempts to wash its hands of any accountability in purchasing people’s sensitive location data when it would otherwise need a warrant.”
Tewari added, “Legislation like the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act would end agencies’ warrantless access to this data and head off their flimsy justifications for obtaining it without judicial oversight in the first place.”
In various emails, DHS employees raise concerns about using this data. Internal briefing documents acknowledge that “[l]egal, policy and privacy reviews have not always kept pace with the new and evolving technologies,” said the ACLU.
Several email threads highlight internal confusion in the agency’s privacy office and potential oversight gaps in the use of this data. Projects involving Venntel data were temporarily halted because of unanswered privacy and legal concerns.
Regardless, DHS continued with bulk location data purchases. The volume of sensitive location data purchased by the agency is tremendous, the ACLU notes.
Among the records released to the ACLU by CBP were seven spreadsheets containing a small subset of the raw location data purchased by the agency from Venntel. For one three-day span in 2018, the records contain around 113,654 location points — more than 26 location points per minute.
And that data appears to come from just one area in the Southwestern United States, meaning it is just a small subset of the total volume of people’s location information available to the agency.
“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,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
He added, “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. With the potential for abuse so high, Congress must step in to definitively end this practice.”