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ACLU sues DHS for records on purchased cell phone data to track immigrants

ACLU sues DHS for records on purchased cell phone data to track immigrants
© Greg Nash

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is ramping up efforts to obtain records of the Trump administration’s reported purchase of cellphone data to track locations of immigrants.

The ACLU on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) demanding the agencies release the records. The group says it has waited for more than nine months for DHS, CBP and ICE to produce the records through the Freedom of Information Act.

The nonprofit alleges the government agencies bought access to databases containing “precise location information for millions of people,” gathered by apps running on smartphones. 

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The Wall Street Journal first reported in February that the Trump administration was buying access to such data through a company named Venntel that was selling access to a database to DHS, ICE and CBP.  

“The agencies’ purchase raise serious concerns that they are avoiding Fourth Amendment protection for cell phone location information by paying for access instead of obtaining a warrant,” the ACLU wrote in the lawsuit. 

In 2018, the Supreme Court held in Carpenter vs. United States that collecting significant quantities of historical data location from cellphones is a search under the Fourth Amendment and requires a warrant.

A spokesperson for CBP said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. Spokespeople for DHS and ICE were not immediately available for comment. 

The ACLU said in the suit the records “would contribute significantly to the public’s understanding” of how the agencies use “invasive surveillance technology both at the border and within American communities, and whether they are complying with constitutional and legal limitations on unreasonable searches.” 

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CBP officials confirmed to Senate staff in September that it was tracking phones using Venntel’s product, according to a group of Democratic senators who urged a DHS watchdog investigation into the tracking.

The DHS’s internal watchdog on Wednesday said in a letter to five senators that it would probe the department’s tracking of Americans' phone data without a warrant. 

The investigation was opened in response to an inquiry from Democratic Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWhat the shift in Senate control means for marijuana policy reform Hawley files ethics counter-complaint against seven Democratic senators Hillicon Valley: Intelligence agency gathers US smartphone location data without warrants, memo says | Democrats seek answers on impact of Russian hack on DOJ, courts | Airbnb offers Biden administration help with vaccine distribution MORE (Ore.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden argues for legislative patience, urgent action amid crisis Financial firms brace for Biden's consumer agency chief Tim Ryan says he's 'looking seriously' at running for Portman's Senate seat MORE (Mass.), Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyHillicon Valley: Raimondo wades into 230 debate | Google cuts donations to election result deniers | House GOP unveils tech plan Markey questions Facebook on 'failed commitment' to stop recommending political groups Biden expands on Obama ethics pledge MORE (Mass.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownFinancial firms brace for Biden's consumer agency chief Portman planned exit sets off Ohio free-for-all Portman won't run for reelection MORE (Ohio) and Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzFor platform regulation Congress should use a European cheat sheet Senate Democrats rebuke GOP colleagues who say they'll oppose Electoral College results 11 Senate Republicans say they will oppose Electoral College results Wednesday MORE (Hawaii) in October. 

“If federal agencies are tracking American citizens without warrants, the public deserves answers and accountability,” Wyden said in a statement 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.”