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Democratic senators ask inspector general to investigate IRS use of location tracking service

Democratic senators ask inspector general to investigate IRS use of location tracking service
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Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenFCC to move forward with considering executive order targeting tech's liability shield Top Democrats call for watchdog to review Trump Medicare drug cards On The Money: Trump says talks on COVID-19 aid are now 'working out' | Pelosi shoots down piecemeal approach | Democrats raise questions about Trump tax audits MORE (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPush to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Georgia senator mocks Harris's name before Trump rally: 'Kamala-mala-mala, I don't know' Warren, Porter to headline progressive fundraiser supporting seven swing state candidates MORE (D-Mass.) on Thursday urged the Treasury Department watchdog to investigate the IRS criminal investigation division's use, without a court order, of a commercial database containing location data from Americans' cellphones.

“The IRS is not above the law and the agency’s lawyers should never provide IRS-CI investigators with permission to bypass the courts and engage in warrantless surveillance of Americans,” the senators wrote in a letter to Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George.

The IRS in 2017 and 2018 purchased a subscription to a database offered by a government contractor called Venntel that included location data collected from millions of cellphones. IRS criminal investigations officials confirmed the purchase of the subscription and use of the product to Wyden's office in June.

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According to the letter, the IRS officials confirmed that they searched the database for information that had been collected from Americans' phones without a court order. They said that doing so was approved by the agency's lawyers.

The senators, however, said that the IRS has ignored follow-up requests for documents detailing the agency's legal reasoning.

Wyden and Warren asked George for an investigation on the criminal investigation division's "use of commercial databases containing Americans’ information, including but not limited to Venntel’s location database.”

They also called for an examination of the legal analysis the IRS used "in order to determine how such an obvious violation of Americans' privacy rights was approved."

The IRS said in a statement provided to The Hill on Thursday that the criminal investigation division "takes the privacy of citizens very seriously and follows all laws and regulations surrounding that privacy while administering the very important law enforcement mission of protecting our nation’s tax system." 

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The criminal investigation division's use of the database "was limited to attempting to identify unknown suspects through cross-referencing data points of identified criminal activity locations and times," the agency added.

"CI only deployed this tool in significant money laundering, cyber, drug and organized crime cases," the IRS said. "After a period of performance (one year), it was determined that this tool did not benefit CI investigations and its use was discontinued."

updated at 6:07 p.m.