New data obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveals how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its various departments are spying on people using location data from smartphones.
The ACLU got more than 6,000 pages of records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, which you can read the whole thing on the website of the organization (opens in new tab). The documents show how DHS has circumvented U.S. civil rights by purchasing using taxpayer-funded user data obtained through smartphone apps. According to the ACLU (opens in new tab)this data collection was all done without a single warrant being issued.
DHS circumvented the law by purchasing information from two data brokers: Venntel and Babel Street. According to a marked document (opens in new tab), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a division of Homeland Security, once spent more than $2 million to obtain location data from Babel Street. The ACLU also published a Ventel Marketing Brochure (opens in new tab) that describes how the company collects data and it is quite insidious.
Venntel says it collects and analyzes “billions of commercially available location signals to…” provide information about a smartphone’s whereabouts and a person’s movement. The brochure goes on to say that law enforcement officers can find smartphones in “places of interest” and later “identify returning visitors, locations visited, locate and discover known employees.” [a] pattern of life.” It paints a very detailed picture of what a person does in their daily life.
In total, the ACLU determined that DHS owns approximately 336,000 location points. In fact, over the course of a three-day period in 2018, DHS got about 113,654 locate points from a single area in the southwestern United States. The ACLU is concerned about people living along the southern border of the US, claiming that location data could be used to discriminate against people living in those areas as the CBP searches for illegal immigrants.
Throughout the document were several cases of Homeland Security attempting to justify the department’s actions after employees raised concerns. The data collected was characterized as nothing more than “digital exhaust (opens in new tab)”, that it is all superfluous information. But digital exhausts can reveal a lot about a person’s internet behavior, such as which websites they visit or which services they use.
Another government document tries to claim that people like to share location data and that the collection of this information is done with the consent of the user. The ACLU chides for this, stating that most people don’t know how many apps collect location data, and many don’t expect the government to buy this data either.
We contacted the Department of Homeland Security and Babel Street and asked if they would make a statement about the ACLU documents. We will update this story if we hear from them.
Fighting for protection
We probably haven’t heard the last of this. The ACLU has revealed Homeland Security owes it even more information, so another round of documents could follow. The organization also points to a bipartisan bill currently in Congress that aims to protect the Fourth Amendment.
It’s called the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act (opens in new tab) and is co-sponsored by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The bill requires law enforcement to get a court order before accessing citizens’ data and that includes buying information from data brokers. It was first introduced in 2021 (opens in new tab) and is still waiting to be checked by the Senate.
If you’re concerned about Homeland Security poking around, we recommend checking out our list of the best secure smartphones for 2022.