As the economy deteriorates and the foundations of American democracy seem to crack, a different, largely ignored subplot is unfolding in the background: big tech and US immigration enforcement joining hands to spy on you without a warrant.
Typically, a law enforcement agency has to get a warrant to dig up and look over the intimate, private details of someone’s life, lowering the chances that this power is abused. But not so for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and other arms of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): by paying for access to the massive troves of data that our devices, browsers, apps, and more collect and sell to for-profit data brokers, DHS has its hands on a vast swath of information about Americans’ private comings and goings.
In this case, it’s the geolocation data that our phones are constantly pinging around, sometimes with our permission, sometimes not. Specifically, one major data broker DHS has partnered with collected over a mere three-day period in 2018 a whopping 113,654 location points, or more than twenty-six each minute, according to the ACLU’s analysis of the thousands of government documents it got as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. That broker, Venntel, boasted to the DHS in marketing materials that, over the course of a day, it swept up more than 15 billion location points from more than 250 million mobile devices.
Venntel is one of the “two primary companies” that ICE “interacted with regarding geolocation services,” according to a 2020 email chain, the other being Babel Street, another data analytics company whose board of advisors is made up of a variety of US military and intelligence officials. According to the documents, the companies that DHS contracts with are the result of a thorough and continuous process of market research, part of which involved testing both platforms’ effectiveness in tracking down absconders from ICE’s “alternative to detention” program — those on house arrest with ankle bracelets, for instance.
“Services provided by both platforms allow law enforcement personnel to draw a geo-fence around an address or general location, which identifies the latitude and longitude coordinates of multiple mobile devices that were located within the selected area for the timeframe searched,” one document explains.
For the most part, information about the specific usefulness of contractors like Venntel and Babel Street are carefully redacted in the documents, but what’s left still offers some clues. A March 2020 statement of work from ICE on geolocation data services lists a number of requirements around accuracy, detail, and searchability, but also more broadly lists the need to get data “from the highest number of sources available.”
Generally, the document explains, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations must be able to “accurately identify digital devices within the US and international borders for information on a specific location, or a designated polygon area, during a specified time period within the preceding years, greater than two (2) years.” One document cites as a unique advantage of Babel Street its ability to “exploit language barriers to effectively and efficiently identify possible terrorists and targets of interest”; Babel Street itself points to its platform’s capacity to “discover and decipher relevant, multilingual data” as a selling point.
All of this comes with serious privacy concerns for all Americans. As the ACLU points out, it was only four years ago the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement needs a warrant to access Americans’ location data from cell phone companies. Yet shortly after that decision, here was DHS simply paying to access the mountains of commercially available data held by private companies. Like the National Security Agency staff who used their access to surveillance tools to spy on their current and former lovers, this intimate data is then at the fingertips of any government worker who has access to it, which is potentially many: documents show the government demands between ten and one hundred licenses with every contract, and in one 2019 email, an ICE official offers that “all investigative analysts have access to [Venntel] via” the Office of Intelligence of Homeland Security Investigations, a subset of ICE.
“We have a lot of various systems and databases and tools and we want to ensure we are tracking who has access and the usage,” one official notes in 2018, while asking to keep track of who is using the program.
As Politico noted in its report on the documents, this location data is both intimately revealing and has already been used for a number of alarming purposes, from selling data on Muslim populations to the military to outing a gay priest. It’s also just the tip of the iceberg: a two-year Georgetown Law investigation that dropped two months ago found that ICE was effectively operating as a domestic spy agency by contracting with a dizzying array of data brokers, from DMVs and credit-reporting agencies to utility companies. One of those, Thompson Reuters’ CLEAR service, shows up in the ACLU’s documents, which one ICE intelligence official describes as letting investigators “build a full picture of a subject, witness, or business.”
It’s especially concerning in light of ICE widening its remit in recent years. Under Donald Trump, ICE went well beyond just monitoring migrants. It built a database of journalists, activists, and lawyers for extra border screening and surveilled anti-Trump protests in New York. The agency’s expansive access to Americans’ geolocation data in these contexts has all sorts of possible grave implications for freedom of speech, let alone things like protection of journalists’ sources and even attorney-client privilege. Being a documented but nonpolitical resident won’t necessarily leave you untouched either, since many hundreds of US citizens have been mistakenly swept up by ICE over the past decade.
You can voluntarily opt out of being tracked by Venntel, but of course that’s just one thread in the tapestry of private data companies that DHS uses to hoard a stunning amount of data about the country’s adults. What is really needed are, at minimum, across-the-board limits on government agencies’ use of this information, and beyond that, a conversation about whether we’re really okay with tech companies collecting, selling, and storing intimate data about our daily lives, all supposedly for commercial purposes.