DHS Turns to Commercial Cellphone Data Vendors for Tracking Intelligence

November 18, 2020

Color us completely unsurprised. BuzzFeed News reports, “DHS Authorities Are Buying Moment-By-Moment Geolocation Cellphone Data to Track People.” In what privacy advocates are calling a “surveillance partnership” between government and corporations, the Department of Homeland Security is buying cellphone data in order to track immigrants at the southern border. This is likely to go way beyond the enforcement of immigration laws—once precedent is set, agencies across the law enforcement spectrum are apt to follow suit.

Citing a memo that came into their possession, reporters Hamed Aleaziz and Caroline Haskins reveal DHS lead attorney Chad Mizelle believes ICE officials are free to access locations and cellphone data activity without the need to obtain a warrant and without violating the Fourth Amendment (protection against unreasonable search and seizure). His reasoning? The fact that such data is commercially available, originally meant for advertising purposes, means no warrant is required. Consider that loophole as you ponder how much personal information most citizens’ cell phones hold, from our daily movement patterns to appointments with doctors and other professionals, to our communications. Aleaziz and Haskins write:

“When DHS buys geolocation data, investigators only know that phones and devices visited certain places — meaning, they don’t automatically know the identities of people who visited those locations. Investigators have to match a person’s visited locations with, say, property records and other data sets in order to determine who a person is. But this also means that, technically, moment-by-moment location tracking could happen to anyone, not just people under investigation by DHS. In particular, lawyers, activists, nonprofit workers, and other essential workers could get swept up into investigations that start with geolocation data. DHS officials said they do not comment on alleged leaked documents. The agency is aware of potential legal vulnerabilities under the Fourth Amendment. Mizelle states in his memo that there are ways for CBP and ICE to ‘minimize the risk’ of possible constitutional violations, pointing out that they could limit their searches to defined periods, require supervisors to sign off on lengthy searches, only use the data when more ‘traditional’ techniques fail, and limit the tracking of one device to when there is ‘individualized suspicion’ or relevance to a ‘law enforcement investigation.’”

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that DHS was purchasing this data for ICE and CBP. Federal records show both agencies have bought licenses and software from mobile-device-data-vendor Venntel. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is now investigating the company for selling data to government agencies.

Interesting dynamics.

Cynthia Murrell, November 18, 2020

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