CBP, ICE Hoovering Up Cell Location Data From Third Party Vendors To Track Down Immigrants

from the 'legal-gray-areas'-is-where-we-do-our-best-work dept

Supreme Court precedent says the government needs a warrant if it wants to get cell-site location info. This ruling altered the contours of the Third Party Doctrine, making it clear not every third-party record exists outside the Fourth Amendment's protections.

But that only applies to location info gathered from cell service providers utilizing the data they collect from cell tower connections. When the government wants to track the movement of individuals, it can do it, but it needs a warrant. When it just wants a bunch of location data on everyone in an area, somehow the warrant requirement disappears.

That's what CBP and ICE are doing. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal [paywall], the agencies are buying location info in bulk from third-party vendors. No warrant required.

The Trump administration has been using commercial data that tracks millions of smartphone users' locations to help enforce its policies on immigration and deportation, according to a report Friday from the Wall Street Journal.

The database, owned by a company called Venntel Inc., collects information from run-of-the-mill games, weather and shopping smartphone apps where users have agreed to share their location, according to the report.

This isn't cell-site location info, technically. But a lot of this location data wouldn't exist without cell towers. The CBP believes this is all very legal, as it does not target any one person and, in a rather stupid assertion, claims the data is "pseudonymized." This means the location data isn't linked to identifying info about the cell phone's owner. But that word means even less than the usual "anonymized." The application of analytic tools can strip this anonymization away, even without additional data pulled from other sources.

If the data were truly anonymized, it would be worthless: just a bunch of data points unrelated to anything. But it obviously isn't anonymized -- or at least isn't that way for long after the agencies obtain it -- or the government wouldn't be saying things like this:

Sources told the Journal that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), two divisions under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have used the location data to help them identify and locate those who may have entered the country unlawfully, whom they later arrested.

Both agencies have been using this data since 2017, according to contract info obtained by the Wall Street Journal. For now, it's still legal to obtain this data from third parties without a warrant. It's unlikely this data will see a successful challenge any time soon, not if it's coming from third parties that have been given explicit permission to collect location data.

But that doesn't mean current protections for cell-site location info won't eventually expand to cover third parties like Venntel. Voluntarily sharing location info with a company isn't the same thing as voluntarily sharing data with the government, no matter how much the government argues there's no expectation of privacy in records freely given to third parties. Many people feel more comfortable sharing data with companies, since the end result tends to be things like targeted ads, rather than targeted investigations.

Oddly, CBP claims the data is not "ingested in bulk," which seems to run counter to how this data is purchased. If it's truly anonymized, the CBP has no choice but to obtain it in bulk and work from there to determine who it's targeting for removal. Perhaps the CBP's definition of "bulk" is different than the common definition of "bulk." Maybe the agency believes that throwing up a couple of geofences prevents this from being a "bulk" collection. If so, the government is wrong. Anything that provides massive amounts of data from multiple sources is a, by definition, a "bulk collection."

This is working for the government right now. But sooner or later, this haystack-building method will likely find itself on the wrong side of the Constitution, especially when courts are informed of just how meaningless the word "anonymized" is in the context of bulk location data.

Filed Under: 3rd party doctrine, cbp, cell site location info, commercial purchases, csli, dhs, ice, location tracking, privacy, warrants


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  • icon
    aerinai (profile), 13 Feb 2020 @ 11:15am

    A good way to start losing your info, Venntel

    Now that we know a vendor, Venntel, I think it is important to find out who and where they get their information from. Just like any other data broker, you start naming and shaming the companies that sell their data to these guys, maybe we can get them cut off. No data, no customers, no money. Might make the next Venntel think twice before selling to government agencies in such a sketch way.

    This game of whack-a-mole won't do much in the long run, but watching big companies squirm is always good fun. Their knee-jerk reaction is usually to cut access and behave.... for a while...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2020 @ 1:06pm

    Federal government, uses information available to the public, catches criminals.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2020 @ 1:21pm

    I guess the immigrants without cell phones are ok then.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    tz, 13 Feb 2020 @ 3:49pm

    Private companies...

    This is where the Libertarians fall down. "But it is a private company and can do what it wants". Including for a small sum giving all your information to the Government without a warrant.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2020 @ 4:23pm

    democrats refused to believe that the government could ever, gaining too much power, the power to spy, under democrat lapdogs like clapper, be put to purposes which they opposed.

    yet of course it happened. why not? how is it democrats can't have a brain and think, think man! think! obviously if you sharpen a sword and hand it to your enemy you've done something stupid.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ritika Kothari (profile), 14 Feb 2020 @ 1:07am

    legal law and order

    So appreciate legal law and order- http://www.ritikakothari.com/photos.html

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Feb 2020 @ 5:01am

    Again, another dishonest article conflating “immigrant” with “illegal immigrant.” Nicely done.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Feb 2020 @ 4:53pm

    Locking investigators out of your phone is not a crime

    Just use a GPS jammer, so that your location cannot he recorded in these databases

    As long as you are not too close to a commercial airport, and do not use too much power, it is not illegal in the USA.

    Do beware they are now illegal in mexico, under a new criminal statute carrying 15 years in jail, so dont take your jammers into Mexico.

    This is why I do expect Congress to pass such a law next year in the 117th Congress. But for now GPS jammers are only illegal near commercial airports where FAA jurisdiction applies

    If you are going into Mexico, just temporarily stop these apps by going into apps on.your android device and hit "force stop".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2020 @ 7:15pm

    I'm all for the government hovering up all this data to remove illegal immigrants who didn't have the mental capacity to enter our country legally. My grandparents family came to this country legally so there's no reason why everybody else should have a problem with that.

    There is a reason why they are called "ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS". Notice the word 'ILLEGAL"? I support the government removing undocumented people from our country. Democrats love illegal immigrants, as long as they aren't camped in their own backyard.

    Pelosi and the rest of the Democrat elite pitched a bitch-fest when Trump threatened to send every illegal immigrant to California. What's the first thing the Democrats did? They bitched about it saying how unfair that was. After all, Democrats live with gates around their properties and protected by armed gunmen.

    Democrats are hypocrites in the worst way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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