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We as a society have all agreed to carry around tiny GPS trackers in the form of smartphones, and sometimes law enforcement uses that to track people down. Usually, police have to go through a long legal process to file a warrant, get it approved by a judge, and then serve it to whoever is holding your data. Or maybe not. Documents provided to the ACLU confirm that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is doing an end-run around the legal system by purchasing location data from third-party brokers. 

According to documents obtained by the ACLU under a Freedom of Information Act request, DHS agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) were able to purchase a raft of location data that allowed it to track the movement of millions of mobile devices around the US. The disclosure grew out of a lawsuit filed by the charity in 2020, which was a response to a Wall Street Journal report that alleged this very behavior. 

The records examined by Politico show that CBP contracted with a data broker called Venntel to gain access to device locations without a court order. During a single three-day period in 2018, the agency got 113,654 location points, which is about 26 pings per minute. However, this only covers the southwest region. For the two years of data provided, there were more than 336,000 location points. There could be much more Venntel data from other areas and other agencies. 

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Some data brokers hide tracking code inside apps, and you’d never know it was there.

The documents also reveal the involvement of Babel Street, a data broker that collects data by hiding its code in apps. The users of those apps don’t know they’re being followed around by a third-party, and as a result, Babel Street has a ton of location data. This is one of those business models that certainly sounds like it should be illegal, but alas, it’s not, and DHS is happy to take advantage of it. It saves time compared to going through traditional channels, and sometimes it could provide access to data they simply couldn’t get via any legal means. 

As far as the ACLU is aware, DHS has continued to collect data in this manner after the change in presidential administrations. The documents claim DHS uses the data for immigration enforcement, narcotics investigations, and even human trafficking. There’s no reason to expect this behavior will stop unless the practice of collecting and selling user locations becomes illegal. When police make such liberal use of it, that’s not likely to happen.

Now Read:

  • The Google Play Store Now Relies on Developers to Explain Data Privacy
  • Tim Hortons Illegally Collected Location Data, Promises it Won’t Happen Again
  • Report: Minnesota Secretly Runs a Surveillance Program to Track Activists and Journalists

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