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The extent of the US government’s cell phone tracking operation is revealed in new documents

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Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that the US government’s collection of location data from smartphones is on a much larger scale than previously reported.

In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bought location data from data brokers to track tax evaders and undocumented immigrants. An ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), filed by the ACLU has revealed that, since then, government agencies are still tracking Americans by buying location data from data brokers, on a much larger scale than previously reported.

The documents obtained by the ACLU reveal that more than 336,000 location points were obtained from smartphones in North America. In only 72 hours in 2018, the CBP obtained location records with about 113,654 location points (translating to about 26 location points every minute) in the southwestern states.

The documents also reveal the government’s justification for the data collection, including that the data does not contain personally identifying information and that users voluntarily share location data with smartphone apps. However, the records obtained by the ACLU show that the data enabled the tracking of specific individuals. Additionally, most people do not know that apps track their location, and even fewer know that the data could be shared with the government.

The CBP has a contract with data broker Venntel, which provides it with most of the data from smartphones in the US. Purchasing data from data brokers allows government agencies to circumvent the legal process they would otherwise have to go through.

According to the ACLU, the documents it obtained are more justification why Congress should pass the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ron Wyden (D-OR). The legislation would require government agencies to acquire a warrant from a court before accessing the smartphone data of American citizens, even if the data is to be obtained from a data broker.

“Legislation like the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act would end agencies’ warrantless access to this data and head off their flimsy justifications for obtaining it without judicial oversight in the first place,” said Shreya Tewari, a Brennan Fellow for ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

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