DHS IG Opens Probe into Warrantless Cellphone Tracking

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The investigation is in response to a Congressional inquiry about Customs and Border Protection getting location data from phones.

The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General is opening an investigation into the agency’s surveillance practices in response to a letter from several senators requesting a probe of Customs and Border Protection’s warrantless tracking of phones in the U.S. 

DHS IG Joseph Cuffari said in a Nov. 25 letter to Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, his office would conduct an audit to determine whether DHS and its components “developed, updated, and adhered to policies related to cell-phone surveillance devices.” 

The senators also may be interested in an audit detailing DHS’ use and protection of open-source intelligence, Cuffari wrote. Open-source intelligence refers to intelligence gathered from publicly accessible data. This can include data gathered from sources like social media—for example, when users post geo-tagged photos. 

Cuffari wrote to the senators after they sent him a letter Oct. 23 requesting an investigation into CBP’s use of a commercial database provided by the data broker and Virginia-based contractor Venntel. CBP told Senate staff in September the agency uses Venntel databases without a court order to track and identify people in the U.S., according to the letter. CBP refused to elaborate on the legal analysis it conducted related to its use of the Venntel database, the senators wrote in the letter. 

“If federal agencies are tracking American citizens without warrants, the public deserves answers and accountability,” Wyden said in a joint press release Wednesday. “I won’t accept anything less than a thorough and swift inspector general investigation that sheds light on CBP’s phone location data surveillance program.”

Warren and Wyden have already secured an inspector general investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s warrantless use of Venntel’s services. 

“CBP is not above the law and refused to answer questions about purchasing people’s mobile location history without a warrant—including from shady data brokers like Venntel,” Warren said in the release. “I’m glad that the Inspector General agreed to our request to investigate this potentially unconstitutional abuse of power by the CBP because we must protect the public's Fourth amendment rights to be free from warrantless searches.”

Government use of location data acquired from cellphones raises a myriad of privacy concerns because location tracking can reveal intimate details about people’s lives from political activities to personal relationships and more. Users often lack an adequate understanding of when and which apps may be sharing their data with third parties.  

Markey stated the right to privacy “must not become a thing of the past.” 

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