Feds buy smartphone location data to track undocumented immigrants

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iOS 13 keeps your location private.
iOS 13 keeps your location private.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Location-tracking software purchased by advertisers to better understand customers is now a tool employed by the federal government to target undocumented immigrants.

Homeland security and immigration officials are pulling location data from common smartphone apps, from games to weather, where the user has granted permission to access their location.

News of the government’s use of commercially purchased software, first reported this morning by the Wall Street Journal, adds a crucial talking point to the growing conversation about data privacy and who keep tabs on our whereabouts.

Location data: Read the fine print

With the growing awareness that our digital life can be bought, tech companies, like Apple, have been adding privacy settings and making location tracking easier to turn off. App makers have gotten rich selling data that we often unknowingly relinquish when skipping through the terms and conditions during the download process.

The Supreme Court two years ago ruled geographic location data drawn from cellphone towers is protected information that can not be accessed without court warrants.

But as the Wall Street Journal points out:

(The) federal government has essentially found a workaround by purchasing location data used by marketing firms rather than going to court on a case-by-case basis. Because location data is available through numerous commercial ad exchanges, government lawyers have approved the programs and concluded that the (Supreme Court) ruling doesn’t apply.

The data gathered has been used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to arrest undocumented immigrants who may have unlawfully entered the country. Customs and Border Protection, according to the WSJ, look for “cellphone activity in unusual places,” such as the vast swaths of land along the border with Mexico.

Various federal agencies have spent close to $1.3 million on software licenses, the report said.

Use of the data, considered by privacy experts quoted in the story to be the largest known trove of bulk data used by U.S. law enforcement, could face legal challenges or amplify the call for the government to better protect data privacy.

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

Apple CEO Tim Cook is among the most vocal advocates for new data privacy laws. He has also stood up to pressure from the Department of Justice for Apple to create “back-door” access to encrypted iPhone data.

Source: Wall Street Journal