DHS violates Fourth Amendment with tech data buy, ACLU says

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union released a trove of documents detailing how the Department of Homeland Security evades typical legal processes to obtain people’s cellphone data.

The documents are the fruits of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit the ACLU filed against the Department of Homeland Security in December 2020.

The ACLU said the records show Homeland Security agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are “sidestepping our Fourth 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.”

This is a timely revelation. The Supreme Court decision overturning federal abortion rights has already heightened worries about the tech-enabled surveillance state that could be used to enforce abortion bans. Now, Homeland Security appears to be an example to local governments on how to evade legal obstacles to data collection.

Homeland Security hasn’t publicly commented on the ACLU’s findings.

The ACLU alleged two data brokers — Venntel and Babel Street — effectively helped the government circumvent Fourth Amendment protections by selling Homeland Security personal location data from people’s phones that would ordinarily need to be obtained through a court. Companies like these purchase users’ data that’s been acquired through mobile apps and often sell them to advertisers. 

But there’s always potential for them to sell that data to (more) nefarious actors. 

“The documents expose those companies’ — and the government’s — attempts to rationalize this unfettered sale of massive quantities of data in the face of U.S. Supreme Court precedent protecting similar cell phone location data against warrantless government access,” according to the ACLU.

In fact, the Supreme Court did rule in 2017 that police need warrants to access cellphone location data. And documents the ACLU acquired through its FOIA request showed a privacy official at the Homeland Security ordered employees in 2019 to “stop all projects involving Venntel data” because of the legal concerns. But Homeland Security continued working with Venntel at least through 2021According to Politico, Immigration and Customs Enforcement signed another contract with the company last year that doesn’t expire until June 2023.

The police state is alive and well.


Oct. 28, 202102:31