Homeland Security overseer to examine agency’s use of phone location data


In its surveillance program, the Department of Homeland Security has been using phone location data bought from advertisers.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Your phone can tell a lot about you: where you’ve been, where your home and workplace are, and where your favorite places are. Federal agents are taking advantage of location data siphoned from advertisers through seemingly innocuous apps that you download for weather updates or cheap gas prices, and now a government watchdog is investigating the surveillance program. 

In a letter dated Nov. 25, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, Joseph Cuffari, said his office would audit US Customs and Border Protection’s use of commercial databases to track people by way of their phone locations. CBP is a branch of Homeland Security.

In 2018, a landmark Supreme Court case ruled that law enforcement agents have to get a warrant to track people through their phone location, but agencies have been circumventing the requirement by simply buying the data from collectors with commercial databases. 

“The objective of our audit is to determine if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its components have developed, updated, and adhered to policies related to cell-phone surveillance devices,” Cuffari said in the letter.

Now playing:
Watch this:

Turn off Google location tracking for real


Apps can get permission to collect location data from your devices through necessary purposes — like giving a weather app your location data so it can tell you if it’s going to rain in your area.

But once the data is collected, they can also provide this sensitive information to data brokers, who provide the information to advertisers for targeted commercials. Unless you’re resetting your app permissions or your device advertising ID every day, the tracking can provide a long history of your whereabouts. 

The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the DHS’s internal investigation on Wednesday, revealed in February that Customs and Border Protection was using phone location data for immigration enforcement. The data came from a company called Venntel, which collected data on millions of devices from gaming and weather apps.

In November, Motherboard also reported that the US military bought location data collected from apps like Muslim Pro, an app that requires location data because it tells people what direction Mecca is at for praying. 

The DHS’s investigation comes after requests from a group of Senate Democrats in October, noting that the agency spent half a million dollars to access location data from Venntel.

“CBP is not above the law and refused to answer questions about purchasing people’s mobile location history without a warrant  — including from shady data brokers like Venntel,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in a statement. “I’m glad that the Inspector General agreed to our request to investigate this potentially unconstitutional abuse of power by the CBP because we must protect the public’s Fourth amendment rights to be free from warrantless searches.”

Agencies like the Internal Revenue Service have also used Venntel to track people. The IRS is also opening its own investigation on how it uses people’s location data without a warrant. 

Venntel didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union also announced it was suing the DHS to turn over all records related to their purchase and use of phone location data. 

“If federal agencies are tracking American citizens without warrants, the public deserves answers and accountability,” Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said. “I won’t accept anything less than a thorough and swift inspector general investigation that sheds light on CBP’s phone location data surveillance program.”

Source Article