A report published Monday by the ACLU details a sweeping surveillance program under the Department of Homeland Security capable of accessing billions of location points on hundreds of millions of personal cellphones.
The million-plus dollar program that began under the Trump administration and continued under Biden was first reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2020, then became the subject of an ongoing lawsuit by the ACLU.
On Monday, thousands of pages of documents were made public, shedding new light on a program the ACLU calls “shadowy,” “a massive privacy invasion” and a government attempt to buy “their way around the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.”
“Utah residents were almost certainly included in the database, but because some data is either redacted or not handed over as part of the records request, Utah did not appear in the thousands of pages of records,” Lyla Mahmoud, legislative and policy counsel for ACLU of Utah, told the Deseret News in a statement.
Billions of locations, millions of smartphones
At the heart of the program are two data brokers, Venntel and Babel Street, which in documents obtained by the ACLU claimed to be able to automatically compile 15 billion location points from over 250 million cellphones every day.
By comparison, there are roughly 258 million adults in the U.S., according to census data.
Emails highlighted in the report suggest the program was directed to track “patterns of illegal immigration,” though information on thousands, possibly millions, of U.S. citizens was also compiled.
In a mere three days, U.S. Customs and Border Protection alone collected data from more than 113,000 locations across the Southwest without obtaining a warrant, amounting to 26 data points every minute.
Documents obtained by the ACLU point to a concentrated effort to surveil cities in the Southwest, particularly Phoenix and Los Angeles, although the organization notes only a “small subset” — 336,000 location points from 2018 — is currently available.
And from New York City to Menominee, Michigan, a city of about 9,000, the program appears to be nationwide.
Data from both Canada and Mexico was also collected, including Toronto and Mexico City, the largest cities in each country. Even location points from Amsterdam and Bucharest surfaced in the thousands of pages of documents.
“We continue to see data privacy issues impact various aspects of government involvement in our lives, such as law enforcement agencies like DHS using our own data to surveil us. Though the report does not identify specific people whose information was at issue, bulk surveillance tactics affect us all,” Mahmoud said.
What is the information used for?
The data, according to Venntel documents, can be used to “identify devices observed at places of interest,” and “identify repeat visitors, frequented locations, pinpoint known associates, and discover pattern of life.”
In turn, investigators within DHS — an umbrella that includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Secret Service and Coast Guard — have a massive array of data at their disposal, allowing them to identify and track not just individuals, but everyone in a particular area.
In an attempt to skirt legal implications, both Venntel and Babel Street say the location information is “digital exhaust.” The data has no personal identifying information because it’s a phone number, not the individual’s name, the companies claim, “even though the entire purpose of this data is to be able to identify and track people,” the ACLU said in a news release.
The companies also say users are voluntarily sharing location data when they agree to the terms and services of various smartphone apps, which often contain clauses that allow personal data to be sold. The ACLU says “that consent is a fiction.”
“Many cell phone users don’t realize how many apps on their phones are collecting GPS information, and certainly don’t expect that data to be sold to the government in bulk,” the organization said.
On Tuesday, the ACLU of Utah renewed calls for both state and federal lawmakers to push back on widespread surveillance campaigns.
“More than once, Utah has been a leader in passing state laws to protect our privacy rights, and we look to the legislature to continue those efforts,” said Mahmoud. “On a federal level, people can support efforts to pass legislation like the Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act. In these ways, the people of Utah have opportunities to protect ourselves and our communities from this type of surveillance.”
The news comes in the wake of a Georgetown report in May that found Immigration and Customs Enforcement gathered information on driver’s licenses using facial recognition technology, tracked movements of drivers in major U.S. cities, and compiled utility records for millions of Americans, allowing it “to pull detailed dossiers on nearly anyone, seemingly at any time.”