“We’re asking the agencies to turn over all records related to their purchase and use of cell phone location data,” ACLU said.
For nine months, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has waited on government officials to release cell phone records that they purchased in 2017. Back then, in February 2020, the ACLU submitted its formal request via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and hasn’t heard anything since. Now the ACLU is taking the federal government to court.
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On Dec. 2, the ACLU sued the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), demanding they release their records that show they were tracking the locations of people in the US. The ACLU alleges government officials wanted to know the locations of vulnerable groups, such as immigrants and undocumented persons.
“We’re asking the agencies to turn over all records related to their purchase and use of cell phone location data, including contracts, policies and procedures for use, communications with companies, legal analyses, and more,” Nathan Freed Wessler, ACLU staff attorney, wrote.
In 2018, The New York Times reported that company owners were selling users’ information from their apps to other companies for marketing and other purposes. This information included tracking data from GPS chips in smartphones.
On Feb. 7, the Wall Street Journal reported that DHS “bought access to a commercial database that maps the movements of millions of cellphones in America” and used it for “immigration and border enforcement” without obtaining a warrant.
According to the lawsuit, this was the first time the media had reported on the federal government’s purchase of such data for law enforcement purposes. The ACLU demanded those records soon after that.
On Sept. 16, CBP confirmed to Senate staff that they used Venntel’s product to track people’s locations in the US. On Oct. 27, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) requested an inspector general investigation into the government’s warrantless tracking of phones.
Gathering information without a warrant is illegal. In the 2018 case, Carpenter v. the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement agencies cannot request personal location information from a cell phone company without first obtaining a search warrant from a judge.
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“CBP is not above the law, and it should not be able to buy its way around the Fourth Amendment,” the senators wrote in a letter to DHS Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari. “Accordingly, we urge you to investigate CBP’s warrantless use of commercial databases containing Americans’ information, including but not limited to Venntel’s location database.”