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US Homeland Security purchased ‘staggering’ volumes of location data to illegally track citizens and immigrants

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Monday released never-before-seen records of bulk smartphone location data purchased by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from private contractors that it illegally used to track the movements of individuals across North America.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in Washington, DC on February 3, 2021 (Photo: US Department of Homeland Security)

The documents were obtained by the ACLU in a lawsuit filed in 2020 under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). brokers – Venntel and Babel Street – in violation of the Fourth Amendment law against unreasonable search and seizure.

The trove of documents shows how the DHS, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) departments and, likely also the US Secret Service and the US Coast Guard, spent millions public funds to make bulk location data purchases. An ACLU press release states that “the sheer volume of sensitive location information obtained by the agency is staggering.”

The ACLU released a set of seven redacted spreadsheets provided by CBP that contain “a small subset of the raw location data the agency purchased from Venntel.” The press release goes on to provide details: “For a three-day period in 2018, the records contain approximately 113,654 location points, or more than 26 location points per minute. And this data appears to be from a single region. of the southwestern United States…”

Among the documents obtained are email communications between DHS staff and data company representatives in which attempts are made to streamline the “unfettered sale of massive amounts of data in the face of state Supreme Court precedent protecting similar cell phone location data from a government without a warrant.” access,” the ACLU statement read.

Shreya Tewari, Brennan Fellow for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said, “These records provide critical insight into the government’s attempts to wash its hands of responsibility for buying sensitive location data from people when he would otherwise need a warrant.

The ACLU shared the documents with Politico, who published his own analysis. Politico said the records obtained in the FOIA trial included location information that was “harvested from apps on hundreds of millions of phones” and allowed DHS to locate “more than 336,000 location data in North America,” and that this data “may only refer to a small portion of the information CBP has obtained.

Politico also revealed that the data points included locations in major cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Denver, Toronto and Mexico City. Politico also reported that location data was used by CBP during the Biden administration which “renewed a $20,000 contract that ended in September 2021.”

Most of the data obtained by the ACLU comes from Venntel, a data broker located in the Washington DC area which is a subsidiary of Gravy Analytics. These companies specialize in collecting data that tracks the movement of individuals from one destination to another for the stated purpose of targeted marketing.

In making a sales pitch to DHS departments, Venntel boasted that it collected location data from over 250 million mobile devices and processed over 15 billion location data points per day. On its website, Venntel promotes its services as “innovative big data analytics for the world’s toughest problems.”

According to industry research, location data companies include collectors, aggregators, marketplaces and location intelligence companies, and generate a combined annual revenue of $12 billion.

Location data is collected by apps on smartphones and other mobile devices when users give them permission. Permission-based location data collection was implemented on Apple’s iOS in April 2021 and on Android devices in June 2022. Prior to these dates, per-app location data collection could be stopped, but users either had to disable location services altogether or for each app individually.

Apps have many reasons for needing to know a user’s location, such as how to provide directions to an outlet or respond to local weather conditions. However, when users enable location services for apps, either while using the app or when it is running in the background, they are unaware that this information is being bought and sold by others. powerful “big data” companies.

The ACLU revelations show that this information is being purchased from data companies by state national security institutions for the purpose of expanding its policing operations in violation of fundamental constitutional rights.

As reported in February 2020, the the wall street journal revealed at the time that the DHS under the Trump administration began buying phone location data from Venntel in 2017. It has taken more than two years since then for Congress to launch an investigation into these practices, and the ACLU revelations are part of this legislation. initiative. On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing titled “Digital Dragnets: Examining the Government’s Access to Your Personal Data.” In April 2021, Senator Ron Wyden (Democrat of Oregon) introduced the “Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act” which states that government agencies cannot buy Americans’ location data without a warrant.

The use of location data by police departments is just the tip of the iceberg of mass electronic surveillance of the public that continues and escalates, starting with the undemocratic provisions set out in the USA Patriot Act. adopted following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Even after former NSA and CIA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed details of the sophisticated techniques used by the intelligence state to monitor the locations, activities and communications of everyone on the planet, every assurance from Democrats and Republicans that these programs have been discontinued. turned out to be lies. The continued assault on privacy rights by state agencies, against citizens and non-citizens alike, is a necessary part of US imperialism’s campaign for war abroad and the destruction of democratic rights at home.