DHS Reportedly Arrested Suspects Pinpointed with Purchased Location Data

Posted on March 4, 2020

Earlier this month, The Verge reported that the Department of Homeland Security purchased location data for an unspecified number of individuals in the US-Mexico border region. DHS reviewed a swath of historical location data for those whose data indicated they had crossed the border at some point, and subsequently arrested some number of individuals whose data showed such a pattern.

The article did not clearly state how central a role the location data that DHS obtained played in making the arrests or, more specifically, whether suspects’ real-time location data was reviewed in order to do so. In other words, the article leaves open the question: was the location data used purely to generate leads on incidents of border crossing which were then pursued with traditional law enforcement investigatory techniques, or was it used for this purpose and to lead law enforcement directly to the (at the time, present) location where they ultimately arrested the suspect?

The DHS bought this data from a data broker called Venntel. Ultimately, the location information which Venntel aggregated for DHS (as well as its other customers) derived from the metadata which mobile applications generate and transmit to “marketing companies.”

According to the company’s website, “government” is an industry which Venntel actively does business with, implies that DHS is not the company’s only government client. This suggestion is further reinforced by a job opening at Venntel for a Director of Federal Civilian Agency Sales who “will be responsible for owning a market/agency in our fast growing federal government business.”

For those seeking to escape the federal government’s extra-constitutional acquisition of private data, it should be noted that Venntel does allow individuals to opt out of its data collection by submitting their iOS device’s IDFA or their Android device’s advertising ID, though ironically recommends installing an app for determining these identifiers when (at least in the case of Android) this is not necessary.

DHS’s purchase of data from Venntel illustrates that the government is canny and determined when it comes to finding less legally onerous means of obtaining sensitive data than obtaining a warrant. In fact, this sort of bulk purchase of data for people in an entire region is much more cost-effective than pursuing a separate warrant for each individual suspect, since each warrant would require a bureaucrat’s time in articulating particularized suspicion. If this practice proliferates, it could very well become functionally impossible to safeguard from the government any private information for which data is available for sale by data brokers.

You can read the original piece from The Verge here.