CBP Is Still Buying Location Data From A Company Currently Being Investigated By Congress

from the dodging-oversight-from-two-other-branches dept

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal revealed that ICE and CBP were buying location data from third-party data brokers — something that seemed like a calculated move to dodge the requirements of the Supreme Court’s Carpenter decision. There’s a warrant requirement for historical cell site location data, but the two agencies appear to believe gathering tons of “pseudonymized” data to “help identify and locate” undocumented immigrants isn’t a Fourth Amendment problem.

At this point, they’re probably right. They may not be correct but they don’t have court precedent telling them they can’t do this. Not yet. So, they’re doing it. It may not be immediately invasive as approaching a cell service provider for weeks or months of location data related to a single person, but this concerted effort to avoid running anything by a judge suggests even the DHS feels obtaining data this way is quasi-legal at best.

In late June, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform opened an investigation into Venntel’s sale of location data to ICE and CBP. The Committee asked Venntel to hand over information about its data sales, whether or not it obtained consent from phone users to gather this data, and whether it applied any restrictions to the use of data by government agencies. The answers to the Committee’s questions were due in early July. So far, Venntel has yet to respond.

Venntel’s business hasn’t slowed despite being investigated by Congress. Joseph Cox reports for Motherboard that CBP has just signed another deal with the data broker.

Earlier this month U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) paid nearly half a million dollars to a company that sells a product based on location data harvested from ordinary apps installed on peoples’ phones, according to public procurement records reviewed by Motherboard.


CBP paid just under $476,000 for “Venntel Software” on August 5, according to the public procurement record.

Venntel’s data collection does have limitations that makes it more useful for these agencies than others that have tried it.

The office of Senator Ron Wyden found that the criminal investigation unit of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tried to use Venntel data to identify and track potential criminal suspects. The IRS failed to locate any targets of interest during the year-long contract.

The Venntel data is more useful for tracking “herds of people,” the second former worker told Motherboard. The Wall Street Journal’s February report mentioned agencies have used Venntel data to identify border crossings and then arrest people.

But even with these limitations, it’s still powerful enough to be of concern, especially when it appears federal agencies are willing to buy data from brokers rather than approach service providers with subpoenas and warrants. Venntel’s “product” comes from cellphone apps that collect location data. Venntel generates its own identifiers for each device to tie location data together. Customers like ICE can either ask for all data gathered at certain locations or search by identifier to collect all data tied to that device.

And it’s not just about securing the border. ICE and CBP are also authorized to use Venntel’s data to assist in “law enforcement operations.” Venntel claims it doesn’t sell access to local law enforcement agencies, but it appears CBP and ICE have the capability — and presumably the willingness — to perform proxy searches for agencies Venntel won’t sell to.

If it’s questionable for a private company to sell data to the federal government while under investigation from another branch of that same government, it’s doubly questionable for a federal agency to continue doing business with a company being investigated by Congress. But people without papers must be caught, I guess, even if some rights must be violated (or evaded) to do it.

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Companies: venntel

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