A new report has uncovered the existence of a massive tracking program used by government agencies. Government agencies like the DHS are buying tracking information from surveillance companies Babel Street and Venntel. The companies’ databases contain location information from hundreds of millions of devices, and buying the information privately allows the government to avoid getting a warrant for it. Politico’s Alfred Ng reports:
In just three days in 2018, the documents show that the CBP collected data from more than 113,000 locations from phones in the Southwestern United States — equivalent to more than 26 data points per minute — without obtaining a warrant.
The documents highlight the massive scale of location data that government agencies including CBP and ICE received, and how the agencies sought to take advantage of the mobile advertising industry’s treasure trove of data.
“It was definitely a shocking amount,” said Shreya Tewari, the Brennan fellow for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “It was a really detailed picture of how they can zero in on not only a specific geographic area, but also a time period, and how much they’re collecting and how quickly.”
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The location data industry is an estimated $12 billion market, made up of hundreds of apps that collect location data, data brokers who trade that information among each other, and buyers who look to use that data for purposes such as advertising and law enforcement.
Because the U.S. has no federal privacy laws to rein the industry in, location data sales have gone largely unchecked for the past decade and allowed data brokers to sell millions of people’s whereabouts to whoever’s buying.
Location data has been sold in the past to help the U.S. militaryidentify Muslim populations and was available on Planned Parenthood visitors. A blog also used location data to out a gay priest in 2021. In 2020, The Wall Street Journal revealed that federal agencies including DHS, ICE and CBP were using commercial location data for immigration enforcement. The documents published by the ACLU on Monday give a glimpse into just how much location data these agencies obtained, and how they viewed using that information.
“Venntel has a mobile location data intelligence platform that leverages the unclassified, commercially available mobile advertising ecosystem,” a CBP official wrote in an email in March 2018.
The bulk of the location data that CBP obtained came from its contract with Venntel, a location data broker based in Virginia. Venntel is a subsidiary of Gravy Analytics, an advertising company that specializes in location data.
The data, which spanned from 2017 to 2019, contained more than 336,000 location data points that reached across North America.But in reality, the agency’s data collection may go far beyond what the ACLU obtained through its FOIA requests, considering that CBP continued to use Venntel in 2021.
After watching the government use location data to harass Americans for crossing state borders during the Covid pandemic, people should be suspicious about the government’s access to their location.
Action Line: Be wary about who has your data. The virtual Panopticon being created for government use is bolstered by private data collection. Stay ahead of the game by clicking here to sign up for my free monthly Survive & Thrive letter. I’ll never share your information with anyone, and we’ll weather this storm together.
E.J. Smith - Your Survival Guy
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