Location Data Obtained By CBP Comes From Phone Apps, Is Capable Of Tracking People On Both Sides Of The Border

from the what-Carpenter-decision? dept

More details are coming out about federal law enforcement’s purchases of location data from data brokers. In February, the Wall Street Journal reported ICE and CBP were both purchasing large amounts of data from Venntel, using this information to track down people in this country illegally. Supposedly the data was “anonymized,” which the CBP felt was enough to dodge any Constitutional concerns. Of course, the more data you have, the easier it is to de-anonymize it. And if it was truly anonymous and unable to be converted into traceable human beings, there would be no reason for ICE and CBP to be purchasing it.

This led to some Congressional scrutiny. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform opened up an investigation into federal agencies’ purchases of location data from Venntel. This investigation didn’t stop the CBP from re-upping its contract with the now-controversial broker and continuing to explore the edges of this legal gray area.

A couple of months later, it was revealed the IRS was also buying location data from Venntel, presumably in hopes of tracking down tax cheats. This led to Senators Ron Wyden and Elizabeth Warren asking the IRS’s oversight to look into this. The Inspector General has already replied, stating an investigation is underway to determine whether the IRS’s warrantless acquisition of this location data complies with the Supreme Court’s Carpenter decision, which enacted a warrant requirement for cell site location data.

More documents obtained by Motherboard explain where all this controversial data is coming from. It’s not Google or cell providers’ towers, but from any phone app that harvests location data for their multiple Big Data overlords.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) bought access to “global” location data harvested from ordinary apps installed on peoples’ phones, meaning it could track devices even outside of U.S. borders, according to a document obtained by Motherboard.


“I know I could find signals in non-U.S. territory but they may have been U.S. users/devices,” a former worker for Venntel, the company that CBP bought the location data from, told Motherboard.

This explains CBP and ICE’s interest in this particular data. Looking for illegal entrants gets a whole lot easier when you can start tracking them from the other side of the border. It’s far more useful to these agencies than it is for the IRS, which apparently couldn’t find the suspect it was looking for in Venntel’s database.

This is also why CBP feels compelled to keep throwing money at a vendor targeted by a Congressional investigation and (indirectly) by IRS oversight. It’s too valuable not to have, no matter what the Fourth Amendment implications are.

Filed Under: , , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Location Data Obtained By CBP Comes From Phone Apps, Is Capable Of Tracking People On Both Sides Of The Border”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Been telling you, ANY corporation has it, so will gov't.

by Tipper Theisberg (apparently have to use "AC" now instead of witty names, which may play hell with Thad’s "script"…)

And so long as used for purposes I approve of, then I approve of the use.

You kids cannot have it both ways: tracking gadgets but gov’t can’t get the data.

And specifically: you’re in usual panic that ICE might stop illegal immigrants or drugs from entering the country, ALWAYS your real reason.

You don’t care beans about any person’s privacy, else you’d rail at the corporations which collect it and advocate they be limited. But no, your passion for "surveillance capitalism" won’t let you see even the direction of the obvious solution.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

If we don'

If we don’t forcibly restrict law enforcement from using surveillance tech to enforce an authoritarian regime, they’re going to do it.

So at the point we get out of our current fascist police state, we need to make sure the proverbial camel doesn’t stick its even its nose in the tent, lest the camel get any ideas.

For now, our courts love their law enforcement goons and hate the public, so it’s a good time to be marketing surveillance tech to police.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...