Track apps

ACLU lawsuit: DHS uses phone apps to track people in US, Mexico and more

A report released Monday by the ACLU details an extensive surveillance program under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security capable of accessing billions of location points on hundreds of millions of personal cell phones.

The million-plus program that began under the Trump administration and continued under Biden was reported for the first time by the Wall Street Journal in 2020 and then was the subject of an ongoing lawsuit by the ACLU.

On Monday, thousands of pages of documents were made public, shedding new light on a program ACLU calls “shadowy”, “a massive invasion of privacy” and an attempt by the government to buy “their way to circumvent the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement”.

Billions of locations, millions of smartphones

At the heart of the program are two data brokers, Venntel and Babel Street, which in documents obtained by the ACLU claimed they could automatically compile 15 billion location points from more than 250 million cell phones every day.

By comparison, there are approximately 258 million adults in the United States, according to census data.

Emails highlighted in the report suggest the program was intended to track “patterns of illegal immigration”, although information on thousands, if not millions, of US citizens has also been compiled.

In just three days, US Customs and Border Protection alone collected data from more than 113,000 locations in the Southwest without obtaining a warrant, which is 26 data points per minute.

Documents obtained by the ACLU indicate a concentrated effort to monitor Southwestern cities, particularly Phoenix and Los Angeles, although the organization notes that only a “small subset” – 336,000 location points from from 2018 – is currently available.

And from New York to Menominee, Michigan, a city of about 9,000 people, the program appears to be national.

Data from Canada and Mexico were also collected, including Toronto and Mexico City, the largest cities in each country. Even whereabouts of Amsterdam and Bucharest surfaced in the thousands of pages of documents.

What is the information used for?

The data, according to Documents of Ventelcan be used to “identify observed devices at places of interest” and “identify regular visitors, frequented locations, identify known associates, and discover lifestyle”.

In turn, DHS investigators — an umbrella that includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Secret Service and Coast Guard — have a vast array of data, giving them helps identify and track not just individuals, but everyone. in a particular area.

In an attempt to circumvent the legal implications, Venntel and Babel Street claim that location information is “digital escapes”. The data does not contain any personally identifying information as it is a phone number and not the individual’s name, the companies claim, “even though the purpose of the data is to be able to identify and track people “, said the ACLU in a press release.

The companies also claim that users voluntarily share location data when they agree to the terms and services of various smartphone apps, which often contain clauses allowing the sale of personal data. The ACLU says “consent is a fiction”.

“Many cellphone users don’t realize how many apps on their phones collect GPS information, and certainly don’t expect that data to be sold en masse to the government,” the organization said.

The news comes on the heels of a report from Georgetown in May which found that Immigration and Customs Enforcement collected driver’s license information using facial recognition technology, tracked movements drivers in major American cities and compiled utility records for millions of Americans, allowing him “to pull detailed records on almost anyone, seemingly at any time.”