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DHS spent millions on cellphone data to track Americans and foreigners inside and outside U.S., ACLU report says

The report published contracts between U.S. Customs and Border Protection, ICE and other parts of DHS to buy location data from Venntel and Babel Street.
Image: Commuters in New York
Commuters looks at their mobile phones as they wait for a subway train in New York on June 10, 2021.Ed Jones / AFP via Getty Images file

The Department of Homeland Security has paid millions of dollars since 2017 to purchase, without warrants, cellphone location data from two companies to track the movements of both Americans and foreigners inside the U.S., at U.S. borders and abroad, according to a new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday.

The report published a large collection of contracts between U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other parts of DHS to buy location data collected by companies Venntel and Babel Street. The contracts and other documents were obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

The Wall Street Journal first reported in 2020 that ICE and CBP use cellphone location information for immigration enforcement. At the time, DHS and its component agencies "acknowledged buying access to the data, but wouldn’t discuss details about how they are using it in law-enforcement operations."

The ACLU report published Monday reveals how long the agencies have been doing so, how extensive the data collection is and how there appear to be no guardrails to stop Americans’ data from being swept up in the search.

When seeking a contract from DHS, Venntel said in an email published by the ACLU that it “automatically compiles, processes& validates 15+ billion daily location signals from 250+ million mobile devices.”

Image: U.S.-Mexico border
A border agent checks documents at Paso del Norte International Bridge, in El Paso, Texas, on Nov. 8.Yasin Ozturk / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

It is not clear from the documents whether ICE and CBP use the data to make specific arrests of individuals, and, in emails to DHS obtained by the ACLU, Venntel said it did not store person-identifying information.

Nathan Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said it is easy for law enforcement to determine a person’s identity based on where they spend their time. 

“These records teach us even more about how federal law enforcement and immigration agencies in the U.S. are exploiting sensitive location history of millions of Americans inside the U.S.,” Wessler told NBC News. “They are taking advantage of the lack of strong privacy protections in U.S. law and making us all vulnerable to being tracked at some government employee’s whim.”

CBP has used the cellphone location information to track the movement of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the ACLU.

Wessler said the “dragnet” that stores location information does not appear to differentiate between an undocumented immigrant crossing the border and an American citizen living in a border town.

In a statement, a DHS spokesperson said, “The Department of Homeland Security is committed to protecting individuals’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. DHS uses various forms of technology to execute its mission, including tools to support investigations related to threats to infrastructure, illegal trafficking on the dark web, cross-border transnational crime, and terrorism. DHS leverages this technology in ways that are consistent with its authorities and the law.”

Gravy Analytics, the parent company of Venntel, said, "We take consumer privacy seriously and ensure that our data remains compliant with all industry and legal requirements. We also work closely with our data suppliers to ensure the data we process comes from device users who have opted-in to the collection of device identifiers and geolocation signals, and we apply this standard on a global level, regardless of whether this requirement exists in the jurisdiction where the device is present. Perhaps most importantly, we collaborate with all of our customers, including during Venntel’s previous engagement with DHS, to ensure that our products meet their specific privacy requirements."

Babel Street did not immediately respond to requests for comment.