The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a nonprofit organization, has sued federal authorities over the alleged use of cellphone location data to track the location of immigrants. The ACLU filed the lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to compel them to release records concerning the purchase of cellphone location data, which likely will be used for tracking the location of immigrants.
At the beginning of 2020, there were multiple news reports told of the Trump administration purchasing access to commercial databases that track cellphone locations and using the data to keep track of illegal immigrants.
Government agencies must have a warrant to access someone’s cellular data. However, some agencies found a workaround by purchasing information from third-party companies, a practice that has now come under ACLU scrutiny. The ACLU suspects that the purchase of customer data could be illegal in some cases. In the lawsuit, the ACLU explains how private-sector data and location-tracking services can be leveraged by the government.
The lawsuit comes after the ACLU’s attempt to obtain more records from government agencies, seeking clarification on how the data is used. Though the ACLU had requested the details under the Freedom of Information Act, the agencies did not share any pertinent documents.
The crux of the issue raised by the ACLU is whether or not the government’s purchase of location data is legal, as it may be a Fourth Amendment violation. The ACLU relies on the 2018 Supreme Court decision, Carpenter v. United States, which ruled that law enforcement agencies cannot collect location information from a cellphone company absent a search warrant, as it is a search under the Fourth Amendment.
Comments on the Federal Agencies Purchase of Location Data
“It’s critical we uncover how federal agencies are accessing bulk databases of American location data and why,” Nathan Freed Wessler, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said. “There can be no accountability without transparency.”
Several Senate Democrats led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a privacy advocate, wrote to the DHS asking for more information on how they plan to use such data. The DHS responded that its inspector general would take up the matter. “If federal agencies are tracking American citizens without warrants, the public deserves answers and accountability,” Wyden commented. “I won’t accept anything less than a thorough and swift inspector general investigation that sheds light on CBP’s phone location data surveillance program.” In the letter to the DHS, Senators wrote, “CBP is not above the law and it should not be able to buy its way around the Fourth Amendment.”
The DHS did not respond to a request for comment about the ACLU lawsuit. The agency had acknowledged the purchase of location data but declined to give further information on its intended usage.