US government agencies spent taxpayers’ money buying your location data – what you need to know

A shocking new report (opens in a new tab) from the ACLU revealed how several government agencies purchased smartphone location data for the purpose of circumventing the Fourth Amendment rights of U.S. citizens.

For those unfamiliar, the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable government searches and seizures. However, by purchasing treasure troves of cell phone location data, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and other parts of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were able to keep an eye on Americans without a warrant.

The recordings (opens in a new tab) highlighted in the ACLU report were obtained last year through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). To make matters worse, DHS spent millions of taxpayer dollars buying access to cell phone location data collected by two prominent data brokers.

Back in early 2020, The Wall Street Journal (opens in a new tab) first reported that CBP and ICE purchased access to American’s location data without a warrant. Following this news, the ACLU submitted a FOIA request to obtain the records in question.

Doing business with data brokers

According to the ACLU, DHS purchased the location data of US citizens’ smartphones from the data brokers Venntel and Babel Street.

Based on a Venntel marketing brochure, law enforcement can use the data they’ve purchased to “identify observed devices at places of interest” and to “identify regular visitors, places frequented , identify known associates and discover ways of life”.

Although the data itself does not contain any personally identifiable information (IIP) because it is associated with a smartphone’s digital ID as opposed to a person’s name, government investigators can still use it to identify and track specific individuals or everyone in a particular location.

After reviewing 6,168 pages of location records obtained from its FOIA request, the ACLU found that they contained approximately 336,000 location points obtained from users’ smartphones. For example, records from a three-day period in 2018 contain approximately 113,654 location points, or more than 26 points per minute.

If you’re wondering where all this data comes from, data brokers like Venntel and Babel Street quietly extract it from smartphone apps installed on users’ devices. This is why you should always be careful when installing new apps and make sure to carefully read the permissions they ask for.

A wide shot of the United States Capitol building

(Image credit: JamesDeMers/Pixabay)

The Fourth Amendment is not for sale

In an effort to stop government agencies from using location data from US citizens’ smartphones without a warrant, Senators Ron Wyden and Rand Paul have introduced a new bill.

The bipartisan legislation, known as The Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, would require the government to obtain a court order before obtaining US citizens’ data from data brokers.

In a Press release (opens in a new tab) Announcing the bill, Wyden provided additional information on how it would prevent government agencies from secretly doing business with data brokers, saying:

“Doing business online is not about giving the government permission to track your every move or dig into the most personal details of your life. There is no reason information retrieved by data brokers should be treated any differently than the same data held by your telephone company or email provider. This bill closes that loophole and ensures that the government cannot use its credit card to end the Fourth Amendment.

What you can do to protect yourself from government spying

Although you can use any of best vpn services (opens in a new tab) To prevent the US government and other third parties from tracking your online activity, a VPN wouldn’t really help in this case because the data in question is collected from the apps themselves along with the GPS information.

As such, as we mentioned earlier, you need to be very careful about the apps you download. Looking at their privacy policies on the Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store can help, but not all companies fully explain how they use the data they collect from their users.

Unless you plan on leaving your smartphone at home or switching to a flip phone, you’ll want to know how to turn off location tracking on Android and how to turn off location tracking on iPhone for added peace of mind.

Until Congress and the Senate decide to pass the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act or other similar legislation, the practice of buying location data from data brokers is likely to continue.

Ashley C. Reynolds