The Trump administration has bought cell phone location data that maps the movements of millions of cellphones in America and is using it to monitor the border.
The Wall Street Journal revealed on Friday that the government has been buying access to information gathered by Venntel, a Virginia-based company.
Venntel buys it first from private marketing companies who buy it from apps which have been granted access to a person’s location services on their phone. Then, it sells it on – mostly to advertisers – but also branches of government.
It gets the information from apps which people have allowed to access their locations.
The Journal cited unnamed government officials who said the government was buying the data like any other commercial customer, but was then using it to track migrants along the border.
Specifically, they have looked for patches of desert or land that would ordinarily be deserted to try to hone in on people sneaking into the country.
In some cases, it had led to arrests, the officials warned.
It was also what led federal agents to find a drug smuggling tunnel leading into a KFC in Arizona last year.
Officials claimed at the time that a routine traffic stop led them to make the arrest of the KFC’s owner, Ivan Lopez.
The government last year spent $1.1million on three subscriptions including to one with Venntel.
Venntel bought the data from marketing companies and ordinarily, it sells it to advertisers.
The government, in essence, is no different to those customers, the officials said.
On its website, it says it ‘supports our national interests through technological innovation, data reliability and proven results.
The website also says that Venntel says it offers defense-intelligence and national-security services.
The revelation that the government is buying the data is unsettling for those who celebrated a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that prevents officials from getting the data directly from the cell phone companies without a court ruling.
That ruling was based on the Carpenter vs United States case.
The Supreme Court ruled that the data revealed so much about the way Americans live their lives that it ought to be protected.
Critics say the act of buying the information rather than extracting it from the companies themselves is ‘creepy’ and encroaching on the privacy of millions.
‘This is a classic situation where creeping commercial surveillance in the private sector is now bleeding directly over into government,’ said Alan Butler, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said.
Neither the government nor Venntel would comment specifically on the purchasing of the data.
‘While CBP is being provided access to location information, it is important to note that such information doesn’t include cellular phone tower data, is not ingested in bulk and doesn’t include the individual user’s identity,’ a spokesman said.