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Confronting the Government’s Purchase and Tracking of Location Data

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By Alex Psilakis

While it may seem as though the U.S. government cannot acquire private, sensitive information collected on one’s phone without probable cause, recent news has shown different tools agencies are using to track location data. 

The Fourth Amendment has protected against unlawful searches and seizures since its ratification in 1791. This law has adapted, in part, to the digital age. For example, in the 2018 Supreme Court case Carpenter v. U.S., the court ruled that the government must obtain a warrant to acquire a person’s cell phone location history from cellular service providers due to the “privacies of life” the records may reveal.  

However, by using perfectly legal digital tools to track the location data of individuals, it appears there are ways to circumvent these protections. 

According to recent research released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spent millions in taxpayer dollars to purchase bulk location data from two data brokers, Venntel and Babel Street, to ultimately track a wide array of personal location data. These brokers harvested user location data from mobile apps, which they then sold to DHS. DHS, in turn, used this info to track individuals across North America. 

Users sometimes have the ability to opt-in to terms like location tracking when using mobile apps, however, this information is usually buried in massive privacy policies that would take hours to read. As a result, users don’t realize their data is being collected. 

DHS’s collection of location data is not the first time a U.S. government agency has purchased location data. The Defense Intelligence Agency reportedly purchased commercially-available location data harvested from smartphones to track both foreign and American users. From 2017 to 2018, the Secret Service also bought nearly $2 million worth of bulk location data from Babel Street to follow users’ movement. From 2017 to 2018, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) acquired location data from Venntel to aid the agency’s investigations into significant money laundering, cyber, drug, and organized-crime cases. 

The U.S. government’s purchase of bulk location data collected by mobile apps presents a threat to  privacy. U.S. government agencies may track the location of individuals – without the individual’s notice. 

This breach of privacy is especially disturbing when considering the recent Supreme Court case, Dobbs v. Jackson, which eliminated the federal right to an abortion. States with strong anti-abortion laws, such as Texas, may purchase bulk location data from brokers to track the specific movements of those they suspect seeking abortions, or those aiding in the facilitation of abortions. As our December 2021 investigation into mobile health apps found, 21 period and pregnancy tracking apps requested access to users’ fine location, which can be accurate to within 10 feet. 

The federal government should end its practice of purchasing bulk location data. Congress must  pass legislation that limits the sale and transfer of location data, and now is a superb opportunity given the data privacy legislation it is currently considering. Additionally, federal agencies can also pledge to stop purchasing bulk location data. 

When individuals use mobile apps, they should not have to fear the U.S. government is tracking their movement. Government action, either in Congress or through federal agencies, can help put these fears to rest.