New records reportedly show Homeland Security buying smartphone data to track you

New records reportedly show Homeland Security buying smartphone data to track you

Millions in taxpayer money goes to spy on people across US. New records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveal how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its various divisions may be spying on people using smartphone location data.

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, the ACLU obtained nearly 6,000 pages of documents, all of which are available to read in full on the organization’s website. The records demonstrate how the DHS bought user data gathered from smartphone applications using public funds in order to circumvent US civil rights laws. The ACLU claims that not a single warrant was used in the process of gathering this data.

Large scale tracking

The DHS was able to get around the restrictions by buying data from Venntel and Babel Street, two data brokers. One document that stands out claims that Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a department of Homeland Security, reportedly paid more than $2 million to get location information from Babel Street. The Venntel marketing brochure that the ACLU also released describes the company’s sneaky data collection practices

According to Venntel, it gathers and examines “billions of commercially-available location signals to provide…information on the position and movement of a smartphone.” The brochure claims that after finding cellphones in “places of interest,” police enforcement would be able to “identify repeat visits, visited areas, pinpoint known associates, and discover [a] pattern of life.” It provides a highly thorough picture of a person’s daily activities.

The DHS has over 336,000 location points in its hands overall, according to the ACLU. In fact, the DHS received around 113,654 location points from a single region in the Southwest of the United States during the course of three days in 2018. The ACLU is concerned for individuals who reside near the southern US border because it contends that location data can be used to discriminate against residents of such regions while CBP looks for undocumented immigration.

Throughout the document were several instances of Homeland Security trying to justify the department’s actions after employees raised concerns. The collected data was characterized as nothing more than “digital exhaust”, that it’s all excess information. But digital exhaust can actually reveal a lot about a person’s internet behavior like what websites they frequent or services they use.

Another government document makes the claim that users voluntarily give their location information and that doing so is done with their agreement. The ACLU challenges this claim, arguing that many individuals are unaware of how many applications are gathering location data and that many also don’t believe the government will purchase this information.

We contacted Babel Street and the Department of Homeland Security to see if they would be willing to provide a statement on the ACLU papers. If they get in touch, we’ll update this story.

Fighting for protection

Most likely, this is not the last we’ll hear of it. There may be further records as the ACLU discovered that Homeland Security still owes them more information. The group also mentions a bipartisan Fourth Amendment protection measure that is now before Congress.

Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Bernie Sanders are cosponsoring it under the name Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act (I-VT). Law enforcement would be required by the proposed legislation to get a court order before accessing the data of residents, even when purchasing data from data brokers. It was initially proposed in 2021, and the Senate has yet to review it.

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