The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will cease using commercially sourced smartphone location data, a practice criticized for potentially bypassing the Fourth Amendment. The data, obtained through vendors like Venntel allowed tracking of individual and group movements. 

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has informed Senator Ron Wyden of its decision to stop using commercially sourced smartphone location data. The decision comes after years of purchasing such data, often without a warrant, a practice criticized for potentially violating the Fourth Amendment. The CBP cited a lack of current need for this data as the reason behind this move. Senator Wyden welcomed the decision but expressed concerns over the unreleased legal memo that authorized such surveillance.

 

The CBP has been utilizing Commercial Telemetry Data (CTD) for its operations, a practice set to end by September 30, 2023. The data, globally sourced, was obtained through vendors like Venntel, costing the agency substantial amounts, including a payment of $476,000 in August 2020. The agency maintains that any future needs for such data will be met with proper engagement with oversight, legal, and privacy entities. The data was used in line with the agency’s border security and law enforcement mandates.

 

The acquisition of location data often starts with software development kits (SDKs) integrated into ordinary apps by location data firms. Venntel, for instance, sourced people’s locations through apps like “Sygic GPS Navigation & Offline Maps” and “Fu*** Weather (Funny Weather)”. This data, which can pinpoint individual devices and, by extension, individuals, is then sold to various clients including law enforcement agencies. Despite its capabilities, the data has not always successfully aided in tracking individual targets, with agencies sometimes finding more value in tracking groups of people.

 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) emphasized its commitment to individual privacy and civil liberties, stating that technology was leveraged in accordance with the law and agency authorities. The CBP plans to discontinue its CTD contract post a review initiated in 2018. Advocacy groups urge transparency from the CBP on its future actions and call for a reconsideration of other invasive surveillance technologies. Senator Wyden stressed the need for enforceable protections against government surveillance and urged Congress to prevent warrantless data purchases in the upcoming surveillance reform.

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