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Department of Homeland Security reportedly using database that tracks millions of smartphone users

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What you need to know

  • A Wall Street Journal report claims that Federal agencies are using cellphone location data to track millions of users.
  • Specifically, the Trump administration has bought access to a commercial database, using it for immigration and law enforcement.
  • Laws limiting the power of the government in obtaining the data from phone companies may not apply, as the data was bought from commercial companies.

A Wall Street Journal report claims that the Department of Homeland Security may have purchased access to a commercial database of cellphone location data, using it for immigration and border enforcement.

According to the report:

The Trump administration has bought access to a commercial database that maps the movements of millions of cellphones in America and is using it for immigration and border enforcement, according to people familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.The location data is drawn from ordinary cellphone apps, including those for games, weather and e-commerce, for which the user has granted permission to log the phone's location.The Department of Homeland Security has used the information to detect undocumented immigrants and others who may be entering the U.S. unlawfully, according to these people and documents.

Whilst usually anonymous, location data can be quite easily used to pinpoint and track an individual, for example between their home and their workplace. In one case, the data was used to detect drug smugglers, specifically their cell phones, moving through a tunnel under the U.S. Mexico border, which emerged in an abandoned KFC in Arizona.

The data tracking contributed to the 2018 arrest of the defunct restaurant's owner, Ivan Lopez, on conspiracy charges related to the construction of the tunnel, the people said. But police records of the incident make no mention of the use of data showing cellphones crossing the border in an unusual location, attributing the case instead to a routine traffic stop.

The reference to a traffic stop might well point to the fact that the DHS was not keen on having lawmakers find out where it might actually have got that information from. The report notes that a 2018 court ruling was supposed to limit the powers of the US government when it comes to buying data from phone companies. However, that ruling isn't relevant here because the data is available through "numerous commercial ad exchanges".

"In this case, the government is a commercial purchaser like anybody else. Carpenter is not relevant," said Paul Rosenzweig, a former DHS official who is a resident senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a conservative and libertarian think tank that promotes free markets. "The government is just buying a widget."

According to the report, the DHS admitted that it had bought access to the database in question, but would not speak about how the information was being used.

Stephen Warwick
Stephen Warwick

Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design.

Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple.

12 Comments
  • This is great news! I hope it works out well for them, in stopping illegal immigration and what not!
  • George Orwell, anyone?!
  • America doesn't have the GDPR, so of course they will just take whatever data they can from their users.
  • If they WEREN'T using this, people would think DHS was stupid and ineffective. I'm all for police using technology to track/find criminals. This is Good News, folks.
  • How is it good news when the government can track millions of its own citizens? This isn't good news. This is autocracy in action. There is no 4th Amendment anymore.
  • You have been tracked by your cell phone since the day you got it. It’s a bit too late to begin whining about the 4th amendment. Besides, I just can’t bring myself to care. I have real things to worry about. Plus, hey stupid people, here is a clue: when you are going to commit a crime, leave your phone at home. Preferably streaming music or a movie or something. So it is active and not just sitting there. So you can’t be placed at the crime scene via phone records. Duh.
  • Just because you're already being tracked, doesn't mean you should be. This is why we have the GDPR in Europe, it makes being tracked without your knowledge illegal. It's really nice to be able to find out what information any company has on me, and to simply be able to tell them to destroy my data at any point.
  • So how can I prevent my location info from getting into a government tracking database? I have a right to privacy and I don't need the government spying on my location. The US is turning into North Korea.
  • Don't use a cell phone.
  • Or move to Europe where privacy laws exist. The "don't use a cellphone" approach applies to any technology, you might as well just become Amish.
  • “The US is turning into North Korea” Right, because the entire U.S. is starving, no one has a job, and we are at war with our neighbor Canada. Besides, very few people in North Korea have cell phones. You are completely hysterical over this non-issue. Not to mention over-the-top narcissism. Why exactly do you believe the government gives a S about you? Lighten up, Francis.
  • I don't think he meant on a whole (although crazy leader in charge is also a thing), but rather in terms of spying and not having any privacy. Admittedly I don't think things are getting worse in America, they've just never had privacy laws, and technology allows for capturing more information than ever before.