DHS accessing cellphone database for immigration enforcement: report


Federal law enforcement divisions have been purchasing commercial databases with cellphone location data to support immigration and border enforcement efforts, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has used the data to detect undocumented workers and other migrants entering the country illegally, according to the Journal.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — both divisions of Homeland Security — have reportedly utilized the data in a variety of ways.

Documents cited by the Journal show that the purchase of user location data started in 2017, when an experimental products division of DHS began to buy location data from Venntel Inc., a small Virginia-based tech company that reportedly shares several executives and patents with Gravy Analytics, a major mobile-advertising company.

The following year, ICE bought $190,000 worth of Venntel licenses. In 2019, CBP bought more than $1 million in licenses for multiple kinds of software. That purchase included Venntel subscriptions for location data.

Both ICE and CBP acknowledged the use of the data, but wouldn’t go into specifics with the Journal about how it was used.

“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 said.

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox told the newspaper that the agency “generally” doesn’t use location data for routine deportation operations.

The Hill has reached out to DHS for comment.

Experts told the Journal that the administration appears to be on firm legal ground with the practice, arguing the government is buying information from a commercial vendor, just like a private company.

The newspaper cited the case of Carpenter v. United States, where the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that location data drawn from cellphones in the country is a specially protected class of information since it reveals so much about an individual. The Supreme Court placed a limit on the ability of law enforcement agencies to obtain location data directly from cellphone companies without a court order.

“In this case, the government is a commercial purchaser like anybody else. Carpenter is not relevant,” former DHS official Paul Rosenzweig told the Journal. “The government is just buying a widget.”

Tags Customs and Border Protection data mining Department of Homeland Security DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement Location data

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