ACLU Wants the Goods on Secret Data Deal Used to Track Immigrants

(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Demanding to see the paper trail, the ACLU complained in federal court Wednesday that the Trump administration is staying mum about its efforts to track immigrants’ movements using cellphone location data.

“While it has been widely reported that defendant agencies are acquiring this highly sensitive data without warrants, little is known about how they are using it, what controls are in place over such use, and how they square their practices with … provisions of federal law,” the civil rights watchdog group wrote.

Filed in New York, the lawsuit comes two years after the Supreme Court held in the case Carpenter v. United States that Americans have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to cellphone location data, so police must get a warrant to obtain that information. 

The Wall Street Journal opened the lid on the government’s activity in a February article that said the Trump administration had purchased access to a database of cellphone location information from the Washington-based company Venntel, which culled information on millions of cellular devices from mundane apps such as gaming, weather and e-commerce that ask users for permission to log their phones’ locations. 

According to the Wall Street Journal’s reporting, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of Homeland Security, has used data from Venntel to assist in identifying immigrants who were later arrested. Another agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, meanwhile is said to have used the information to scour for cellphone activity in “unusual places, such as remote stretches of desert that straddle the Mexican border,” according to the complaint.

Seeking to “shine a light on the government’s use of powerful location-tracking data in the immigration context”, the ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act requests in February 2020 for agency records concerning their access to and purchases from commercial databases containing cellphone location information with specific references to Venntel.

Over nine months later, however, none of the agencies have produced responsive records. 

“Disclosure of the records that Plaintiff seeks through this action would contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of how the Defendants use invasive surveillance technology both at the border and within American communities, and whether they are complying with constitutional and legal limitations on unreasonable searches,” the complaint states. 

The ACLU seeks a federal injunction requiring the agencies to search their records and produce the relevant hits. 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on the pending litigation. Representatives for the Department of Homeland Security and for Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.

This summer, New York Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, launched a bicameral investigation into the mass collection and sale of sensitive mobile phone location data that reveals the precise movements of millions of Americans. 

“With Americans installing contact-tracing apps as part of the effort to limit the spread of Covid-19, it has become increasingly important to make sure that the American public has a full understanding of who is collecting their location data, how it may be provided to the government, and what the government is doing with it,” Maloney wrote in a letter to Venntel joined by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ron Wyden, as well as Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, a fellow member of the Oversight Committee.

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