Federal Agencies Are Quietly Using Your Cell Phone Data

On July 18, 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released thousands of pages of documents revealing that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been buying location data from third parties, thus sidestepping the traditional warrant process. Agencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been able to track movements of millions of cellphones in the U.S. by purchasing location data without any judicial oversight. Obtaining data about domestic communications directly from providers typically requires a warrant that must be approved by a judge. Yet buying data from intermediary organizations does not have the same constraints, so law enforcement agencies were able to access and purchase third party data.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2020 that commercial location data was being purchased by U.S. government agencies. The ACLU then filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit focusing on how this sensitive location data was being used to locate and arrest immigrants, and how immigration authorities were evading Fourth Amendment protections for mobile location data by not obtaining warrants and instead paying for access. The ACLU obtained records from the DHS through the lawsuit, with documents highlighting conversations between federal agencies and surveillance companies.

Babel Street and Venntel have made millions of taxpayer dollars selling access to cell phone location information to the DHS. Venntel collects more than 15 billion location points from over 250 million cell phones and mobile devices every day. This allows government investigators to identify and track individuals, mapping out private details of their lives. Venntel had advertised to the CBP that “all users opt-in to location data collection,” however, users who allow apps on their phones to access location information are most often not intending for their entire location history to be tracked by the government.

The sale of mass data to federal agencies is a breach of Carpenter v. United States, according to the ACLU; government officials must obtain a warrant before accessing sensitive cell phone location data. The ACLU advocates for Congress to pass the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, submitted in April of 2021 to stop data brokers from selling personal information to intelligence agencies and law enforcement.