Homeland Security is investigating CBP's warrantless phone tracking

It's using a database of commercially available data about device locations.

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MIAMI, FL - MARCH 04:  Leonel Cordova (L) and Noris Cordova speak to a CBP officer as they try to use their new mobile app at an entry point as the program is  unveiled for international travelers arriving at Miami International Airport on March 4, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Miami-Dade Aviation Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) unveiled a new mobile app for expedited passport and customs screening. The app for iOS and Android devices allows U.S. citizens and some Canadian citizens to enter and submit their passport and customs declaration information using their smartphone or tablet and to help avoid the long waits in the exit lanes.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is launching an inspector general investigation into the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP)’s warrantless use of commercially-available phone location data to track individuals. This follows an inquiry in October from a group of Democratic senators led by Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who said in a letter that the CBP had admitted to spending $500,000 on access to a commercial database containing “location data mined from applications on millions of Americans’ mobile phones.”

In the statement released by the Senate, Wyden said “If federal agencies are tracking American citizens without warrants, the public deserves answers and accountability, I won’t accept anything less than a thorough and swift inspector general investigation that sheds light on CBP’s phone location data surveillance program.”

According to the statement, public contracts showed that the CBP had paid that money to a government contractor named Venntel, and that CBP officials had confirmed in a call with Senate staff that it was using Venntel’s to track phones without getting warrants. Venntel provide its clients with information and APIs based on “100 percent commercially available data” and appears to source its data from mobile advertising.

The DHS also issued a letter announcing its investigation, and in it inspector general Joseph V. Cuffari wrote that the audit seeks to determine if the DHS (which oversees the CBP) has “developed, updated and adhered to policies related to cell-phone surveillance devices.”

But Cuffari also brought up the DHS’ “use and protection of open source intelligence,” which it says “includes the Department’s use of information provided by the public via cellular devices, such as social media status updates, geo-tagged photos, and specific location check-ins.” The DHS recently came under fire for its “open source intelligence reports” on members of the press, and reportedly ordered to review its procedures related to the collection of identifiable information of American journalists, according to CNN.

Cuffari’s letter gives no indication of an estimated timeline, so it’s not clear when the results of this audit will be made known.

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