Records reveal the scale of Homeland Security’s phone location data purchases

Investigators sounded the alarm when they learned that Homeland Security offices were buying phone location data to effectively circumvent the Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant, and it’s now clearer just how large those purchases were. TechCrunch notes that the American Civil Liberties Union received records linking Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other DHS departments to the purchase of approximately 336,000 phone location points from data broker Venntel. The information represents only a “small subset” of raw data from the US Southwest and includes a burst of 113,654 points collected in just three days in 2018.

The dataset, which was provided by a Freedom of Information Act request, also outlines attempts by authorities to justify the purchase of bulk data. Officials claimed that users provided the data voluntarily and that it contained no personally identifiable information. As TechCrunch explained, but that’s not necessarily true. Phone owners aren’t necessarily aware that they’ve opted for location sharing, and probably haven’t realized that the government is buying that data. Additionally, the data was still tied to specific devices—it wouldn’t have been difficult for agents to link locations to people.

Some Homeland Security employees raised internal concerns about the location data. A senior director warned that the Office of Science and Technology bought Venntel information without receiving a required privacy threshold rating. At one point, the department even halted all projects using Venntel data after learning that important legal and privacy issues remained unanswered.

More details could be forthcoming as Homeland Security is expected to provide more documents in response to the FOIA request. We have reached out to Homeland Security and Venntel for comment. However, the ACLU report could spur legislative efforts to ban these types of data purchases, including the Senate’s bipartisan Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act and the recently introduced Health and Location Data Protection Act.

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