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ICE, CBP Purchase Phone Location Data to Enforce Immigration Law: Report

A member of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Removal Operations (ERO) (San Francisco and Northern California) Fugitive Operations teams is pictured during an operation in San Jose, California, U.S. September 25, 2019. (Kate Munsch/Reuters)

The Trump administration is buying access to commercial databases of phone location data to carry out immigration enforcement, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

Under the Department of Homeland Security, both Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection have tracked phone signals in operations. Sources told the Journal that ICE has used the data to identify illegal immigrants for arrest and deportation, while CBP implements the information to track phone activity in remote stretches of the desert along the southern border.

The shift to commercial purchases of data allows the government to bypass a 2018 Supreme Court ruling in Carpenter v. United States, which said phone location data was a protected class of information and required law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using the data in cases.

“This is a classic situation where creeping commercial surveillance in the private sector is now bleeding directly over into government,” Alan Butler, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Journal.

Both agencies did not deny using the database, but did not detail its specific uses.

“While CBP is being provided access to location information, it is important to note that such information doesn’t include cellular phone tower data, is not ingested in bulk and doesn’t include the individual user’s identity,” a CBP spokesman told the Journal.

An ICE spokesman added that the agency “generally” did not use data for deportation operations, but said that the organization does not “discuss specific law-enforcement tactics or techniques, or discuss the existence or absence of specific law-enforcement-sensitive capabilities.”

Government records show that DHS, ICE and CBP have purchased licenses from Venntel Inc., a firm that buys data from private marketing companies and packages it to sell to other buyers.

“We are not able to comment on behalf of our customers, and any inquiries on this contract should be directed to DHS,” Venntel’s president, Chris Gildea, told the Journal.

In December, The New York Times revealed how a massive data set of over 50 billion location pings linked to more than 12 million phones could be “easily” identified through tracking movement patterns, despite a 30-digit code thought to anonymize the user.

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