The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is launching an inspector general investigation into whether federal agencies surveilled Americans via their cell phone data without a warrant. While this sounds like nothing new, it involved federal agents buying access to a large commercial database.
According to a letter the DHS sent to Congressional leaders last week and obtained by The Wall Street Journal:
The department’s inspector general told five Democratic senators that his office would initiate an audit "to determine if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its components have developed, updated, and adhered to policies related to cell-phone surveillance devices," according to a letter sent last week to Capitol Hill and shared with The Wall Street Journal.
Putting aside the dubiousness of a major federal agency mounting an "objective" probe of one of its own internal departments over violations of Constitutional rights, the episode shows the US government has done little in the way of reform after the Edward Snowden NSA revelations of 2013. Of course, there were few that believed subsequent empty "promises" of politicians to curtail illegal domestic spying in the first place.
In this newest case the investigation will focus on US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its alleged use of of commercially-available phone tracking data to snoop on the whereabouts of individuals. Congressional inquiries started when it was first revealed the CBP payed up to $500,000 to private company for access to a commercial database which has "location data mined from applications on millions of Americans' mobile phones."
The company at the center of the probe is a government contractor named Venntel which sources its data from mobile advertising to create "100 percent commercially available data".
Last Wednesday a group of Senators led by Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) issued a statement which said the following:
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.
"CBP is not above the law and it should not be able to buy its way around the Fourth Amendment," the senators said in the letter addressed to Inspector General Joseph Cuffari.
🚨DHS is opening an investigation into CBP’s warrantless collection of phone location data that @SenMarkey @SenWarren @SenBrianSchatz and I pushed for. I‘ll accept nothing less than a thorough and swift investigation that sheds light on CBP’s location data surveillance program. pic.twitter.com/pBtiRbdrSl— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) December 2, 2020
Simultaneous to the Congressional probe the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week filed a lawsuit demanding the release of "records about their purchases of cell phone location data for immigration enforcement and other purposes."
One crucial detail which remains unclear at this point, however, is the degree to which CBP was obtaining the tracking data of illegal immigrants or foreigners of questionable legal status in the United States. Even if so it's likely they were accessing tracking data of American citizens in the process.
The CBP defense of their actions may hinge on such an argument, namely, that the methods were necessary and only applied to snooping on non-US citizens seeking to evade border and immigration authorities.