New recordings obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveal how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its various divisions spy on people using smartphone location data.
The ACLU has obtained more than 6000 pages of documents in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, which you can read in full on the organization's website (opens in a new tab ). The documents show how DHS was able to circumvent US civil rights by buying user data obtained through smartphone apps with taxpayer money. According to the ACLU (opens in a new tab), this data collection was carried out without the issuance of a single court order.
DHS was able to get around the law by buying information from two data brokers: Venntel and Babel Street. According to a featured document (opens in a new tab), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a division of Homeland Security, has already spent more than €2 million to obtain location data from Babel Street. The ACLU has also published a Venntel marketing brochure (opens in a new tab) detailing how the company collects data and it's quite insidious.
Venntel says it collects and analyzes "billions of commercially available location signals to provide..." information about a smartphone's location and a person's movements. The brochure goes on to say that law enforcement will be able to find smartphones in "places of interest" and then "identify regular visitors, hangouts, identify known associates, and uncover [a] life model. It paints a very detailed picture of what a person does in their daily life.
In all, the ACLU found that DHS had approximately 336,000 location points in its possession. In fact, during a three-day period in 2018, DHS obtained approximately 113 location points from a single area in the southwestern United States. The ACLU is concerned about people living along the southern US border, saying location data can be used to discriminate against people living in these areas as CBP searches for illegal immigrants.
Throughout the document, several instances of Homeland Security attempt to justify the department's actions after employees voiced their concerns. The data collected was characterized as nothing more than “digital leakage (opens in a new tab)”, i.e. it is all information overload. But digital escape can actually reveal a lot about a person's behavior on the Internet, such as the websites he visits or the services he uses.
Another government document tries to claim that people share location data voluntarily and that the collection of this information is done with the consent of the user. The ACLU chides him, saying most people don't know how many apps collect location data, and many don't expect the government to buy that data, either.
We contacted the Department of Homeland Security and Babel Street and asked if they would like to make a statement about the ACLU documents. We will update this story if we hear from them.
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We probably haven't heard the end of this. The ACLU revealed that Homeland Security owes him even more information, so there could be another set of documents. The organization also points to a bipartisan bill currently in Congress to protect the Fourth Amendment.
It's called The Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale (opens in a new tab) and is co-sponsored by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The bill would require law enforcement to obtain a court order before accessing citizen data, which includes buying information from data brokers. It was first introduced in 2021 (opens in a new tab) and is still pending consideration by the Senate.
If you're worried about Homeland Security snooping around, we recommend checking out our list of the best secure smartphones for 2022.