Hearing the Department of Homeland Security admit that they are tracking smartphones from coast to coast is something the American people never thought would happen. While anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for the last 20 years is well aware of their use of terrorism and other allegations to spy on Americans, this latest report takes the cake.
These documents, as obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit are incredibly damning. Inside, they detail the extensive picture of where and why law enforcement agencies have used tools like Venntel and Locate X to spy on ordinary Americans.
These tools are software that is based on location data that is harvested from ordinary smartphone applications. Used in conjunction with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), they can then funnel the information to state and local police to aid in their surveillance activities. Per the documents, various filed offices had access to this data from locations including Knoxville, New York, Detroit, El Paso, Miami, Phoenix, Seattle, and Washington DC. Deeper into the documents they go on to indicate that HSI owns all of the licenses for this data, and just farms the data out to the offices as needed.
Each of these tools works a bit differently. Venntel acquires data from a company called Gravy Analytics. Venntel then packages all that data and sells it to law enforcement agencies. Likewise, Locate X gets its data packages from Babel Street which packages data also from Venntel and they provide it to government agencies. Getting this data from a private business means that they don’t have to obtain a warrant, nor do they have to wait for information. These packages can be customized and purchased quickly and easily.
Privacy lawyers, as well as legal experts and the ACLU, believe that this data should fall under protection under the Fourth Amendment. With one email in the documents illustrating the way HSI is running their requests, it provides them with a wide-open back door to spy into your life. “Anyway, if possible, can you please forward the below dates/times/addresses to your Venntel POC [point of contact] to run?”
This kind of cat and mouse game on data collection has been a double-edged sword for law enforcement for years. While they are harvesting data on American citizens as if they were blueberries, our citizens are being stonewalled from finding out their information or info on our politicians under the guise of national security and privacy laws. Both corporations allege that since the data does not provide names or contact information, the data is not subject to these laws.
Unfortunately for them, this is easily discovered with the data enclosed. The IP and MAC addresses are like digital fingerprints. Track the data from one app like Facebook or Instagram, and cross-reference this information with the data from another like your banking app or Amazon, and you have a direct connection.
Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project gave a statement about the activity. “The Supreme Court has made clear that because our cell phone location history reveals so many ‘privacies of life,’ it is deserving of full Fourth Amendment protection.”
“Yet, here we see data brokers and government agencies tying themselves in knots trying to explain how people can lack an expectation of privacy in such obviously personal and sensitive location information. With the potential for abuse so high, Congress must step in to definitively end this practice.”
This kind of information isn’t something that people just want to hand out. The fact that this has been allowed to go on for so long without it being stopped is criminal in and of itself. It’s time to put an end to unnecessary and invasive data collection, as well as selling it to the feds.