Senator Questions DHS’ Use of Cellphone Location Data for Immigration Enforcement

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Sen. Ed Markey wants details on the reported program, including its security practices.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., penned a letter Wednesday to the Homeland Security Department interrogating its purchase and use of a software and data tracking service that maps millions of people’s physical locations based on information drawn from their cellphone apps—and is reportedly being used by department officials for immigration and border enforcement. 

The senator’s inquiry follows a recent Wall Street Journal report detailing that two of the agency’s components—Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection—paid the private company Venntel Inc. for licenses and services that were then used to identify undocumented immigrants who could be entering America illegally through information drawn from their phone-based activity. 

“The government’s access and use of this information poses serious privacy and civil liberty risks, and is an egregious escalation of the Trump administration’s practice of employing invasive and draconian immigration and enforcement tactics,” Markey wrote. 

According to the media report, Homeland Security began purchasing location data from the Herndon, Virginia-based company in 2017. ICE paid $190,000 for Venntel licenses in 2018 and CBP bought $1.1 million in licenses for three kinds of software, which the article noted included Venntel subscriptions for location data. Officials from the department and its subcomponents “acknowledged buying access to the data,” but they would not clarify how they are employing it in law-enforcement activities. 

In the letter, Markey notes that Venntel reportedly buys the data and information from private marketing companies that source the information from phone apps, and that the data in question may not be “explicitly attached to specific individuals.” But the senator also argues that “even anonymized mobile location data can easily be used to identify unique persons.” Further, Markey argues that the data collection activities and use “[appear] to contravene the spirit, if not the letter” of the Carpenter v. United States Supreme Court case, which set a precedent that the government generally must show probable cause and a search warrant to access and use people’s cellphone location data.

“Tracking like this is completely inconsistent with—and has disturbing and chilling effects on—the privacy protections our Constitution guarantees,” he wrote.

The senator also posed a series of 10 questions about the agency’s work with the company, including how that location data is retained and stored, the data security practices the agency deploys to protect it, and for detailed specifics on how the Homeland Security and its components are ultimately using the location data that’s been purchased. 

Markey asks the department to respond with written answers by March 3.