A commercial phone database that collects consumer location data is now serving as a powerful tool for immigration and border enforcement officials for tracking down illegal immigrants crossing the border into the U.S.
President Donald Trump’s administration has purchased access to the bulk cell phone data and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has already used the information to detect border crossings, according to officials and documents provided to the Wall Street Journal.
The cell phone data draws from apps that phone users have allowed to record their locations. Those apps range from games, weather apps, GPS and e-commerce apps that log user locations. The Trump administration reportedly began purchasing the data in 2017 from Venntel Inc. of Herndon, Va., which is tied to the major mobile advertiser Gravy Analytics.
The DHS has reportedly seen successful immigration arrests as a result of this phone data. The DHS confirmed the data purchases but would not further discuss how they were using the information.
Officials who spoke to the Wall Street Journal separately indicated they were able to plan arrests after detecting cell phone activity in otherwise unusual places, such as remote stretches of desert along the U.S.-Mexico border. They suggested the data helped generate investigative leads and track the position of migrant groups headed towards the U.S.
The data was reportedly used in one case to detect a cross border drug-smuggling tunnel that originated in Mexico and terminated on the U.S. side in a shuttered Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise location.
Privacy advocates have challenged the U.S. government’s bulk collection of electronic data in recent years. In this most recent case, the data collection appears to stand on more solid legal grounds as the information is freely provided to commercial vendors by their users. The U.S. government reportedly purchased the data in the same way other commercial customers may also purchase access of the bulk data.
According to records obtained by the Wall Street Journal, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) purchased $190,000 worth of Venntel Inc.’s licenses in 2018. The practice of purchasing cell phone data appears to have proliferated since then. In September of 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) purchased $1.1 million in Venntel Inc.’s licenses, including location data.
The commercial data purchase and use, however, has not been previously disclosed by the federal government. The legality of commercial data use has also reportedly gone unchallenged in courts thus far.
“This is a classic situation where creeping commercial surveillance in the private sector is now bleeding directly over into government,” said Alan Butler, who serves as general counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center is a privacy advocacy think tank.
“While CBP is being provided access to location information, it is important to note that such information doesn’t include cellular phone tower data, is not ingested in bulk and doesn’t include the individual user’s identity,” a CBP spokesman told the Wall Street Journal.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2018 case of Carpenter v. U.S. that the government must have a valid fourth amendment probable cause warrant before a cell tower can turn over a user’s individual phone data.