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5 Things to Know About How DHS Uses Cell Phone Location Data to Track Border Communities

This summary about DHS buying location data was featured in Documented’s Early Arrival newsletter. You can subscribe to receive it in your inbox three times per week here.

The Department of Homeland Security has spent millions of dollars over the past five years to buy access to location data that two data brokers, Venntel and Babel Street, aggregate from people’s phones, according to a new report from the ACLU. 

Included in the report are thousands of pages of previously unreleased records. The authors make a case for how ICE, CBP, and other parts of DHS seemingly violated the U.S. Constitution’s 4th Amendment right against unreasonable government searches and seizures “by buying access to, and using, huge volumes of people’s cell phone location information quietly extracted from smartphone apps.”

Key revelations from the report: 

  1. Venntel collects over 15 billion location points from more than 250 million mobile devices daily: A brochure from the company indicates that law enforcement agencies can “identify devices observed at places of interest,” “pinpoint known associates, and discover a pattern of life.” In other words, DHS can use the location data collected by Venntel to identify and track individuals of interest and obtain details of people’s private lives. 
  2. In 2018, DHS proposed using location data to gain insights into how undocumented immigrants journey across the border — threatening to invade the privacy of people living in communities close to the border. 
  3. Emails reveal DHS employees raised concerns: An internal email from a senior director of privacy compliance flagged that one DHS office appeared to have purchased access to Venntel even though a required Privacy Threshold Assessment was not approved. Unanswered privacy and legal questions in the agency led to a temporarily halt of projects that involved Venntel. However, DHS has continued to purchase location data in bulk.  
  4. Cell phone users are not fully aware about the data collection and its uses: DHS and the companies it purchases location data from say data is 100% opt-in and user share the information willingly. But many cell phone users don’t read the terms and conditions of programs that collect data and fully grasp what they are consenting to.  
  5. Over 26 location points collected per minute: The ACLU report indicates the extent of the data collection from just one area during the course of three days in 2018. 

The records were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and the ACLU is now pushing for Congress to pass the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, which would require government agencies to get a court order before getting such personal data concerning people’s lives. 

Read the full report, and the records.

New York

Murder charge against bodega clerk Jose Alba dropped: The district attorney’s office said it would be unable to “prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not justified in his use of deadly physical force.” — New York Times

Around the U.S. 

Court rejects college’s bid to continue charging out-of-state residents higher tuition than immigrants: The University of North Texas has said the ruling will cost it millions of dollars in revenue. — Reuters

CBP releases border arrest numbers for June: Border Patrol made 14% fewer arrests in June than in May, which had had the highest number of border arrests in agency history. — Houston Chronicle. Read more context about the data here

Nurse at ICE jail continues working despite 5 sexual assault allegations: There is no evidence to suggest ongoing ICE investigations are related to the nurse, who has continued to give medical attention to women at a Georgia jail as recently as July 2. — The Intercept

USCIS pending applications stood at 8.6 million at the end of March: The processing backlog was at 8.4 million in December 2021, and the number of pending asylum applications before USCIS is up more than 35,000 since then. — Read more

Washington D.C.

Immigration lawsuits against the federal government are steadily growing each year: As procedural delays on immigration paperwork continue, many immigrants find lawsuits the only way to get a timely response for their case. — TRAC Report

Over 74,000 of Afghans applying for U.S. visas still face major delays: The Special Immigrant Visas program for Afghans has been plagued with management problems and low annual caps for years. — CNN

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