New recordings obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveal how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its various divisions can spy on people using smartphone location data.
The ACLU obtained more than 6,000 pages of documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, which you can read in full on the organization’s website (opens in a new tab). The documents show how DHS was able to circumvent US civil rights by buying up user data obtained through smartphone apps with taxpayers’ money. According to the ACLU (opens in a new tab)this data collection took place without a single warrant being issued.
DHS was able to get around the law by buying information from two data brokers: Venntel and Babel Street. According to a document highlighted (opens in a new tab), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a division of Homeland Security, has already spent more than $2 million to obtain location data from Babel Street. The ACLU also released a Venntel Marketing Brochure (opens in a new tab) which details how the company collects the data and it’s quite insidious.
Venntel says it collects and analyzes “billions of commercially available location signals to provide…” information about a smartphone’s location and a person’s movements. The brochure goes on to say that law enforcement will be able to find smartphones at “places of interest” and later “identify regular visitors, frequented locations, identify known associates and discover [a] model of life. It paints a very detailed picture of what a person does in their daily life.
In total, the ACLU found that DHS had approximately 336,000 location points in its possession. In fact, during a three-day period in 2018, DHS obtained approximately 113,654 location points from a single area in the southwestern United States. The ACLU is concerned about people living along the US southern border, as it says location data can be used to discriminate against people living in these areas as CBP searches for illegal immigrants.
Throughout the document, several instances of Homeland Security attempting to justify the department’s actions after employees raised concerns. The data collected was characterized as nothing more than “digital escapement (opens in a new tab)”, that these are all excesses of information. But the digital escape can actually reveal a lot about a person’s behavior on the Internet, such as the websites they visit or the services they use.
Another government document tries to assert that people share location data voluntarily and that the collection of this information is done with the consent of the user. The ACLU chastises him, saying most people don’t know how many apps collect location data, and many also don’t expect the government to buy that data.
We contacted the Department of Homeland Security and Babel Street and asked if they would like to make a statement about the ACLU documents. We’ll update this story if we hear from them.
Fight to protect yourself
We probably haven’t heard the end of this. The ACLU revealed that Homeland Security owes it even more information, so there could be another set of documents. The organization also points to a bipartisan bill currently in Congress to protect the Fourth Amendment.
It’s called the Fourth Amendment Act is not for sale (opens in a new tab) and is co-sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The bill would require law enforcement to obtain a court order before accessing citizen data, which includes purchasing information from data brokers. It was first introduced in 2021 (opens in a new tab) and is still awaiting consideration by the Senate.
If you’re worried about Homeland Security snooping around, we recommend you check out our list of best secure smartphones for 2022.