Senators call for investigation into Border Patrol tracking phones without warrant

"...we urge you to investigate CBP’s warrantless use of commercial databases containing Americans’ information, including but not limited to Venntel’s location database.”

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In response to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials recently revealing that the agency tracks cellphones in the U.S. without obtaining warrants, several Democratic Senators have requested an investigation from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General Joseph Cuffari.

In a letter addressed to Cuffari, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) called for an investigation into the CBP’s warrantless domestic surveillance of phones in the U.S. The senators also noted that CBP has paid Venntel, a government contractor, nearly half a million dollars for access to a commercial database containing location data mined from applications on millions of Americans’ mobile phones, according to public government contracts.

The senators wrote, “In an oversight call with Senate staff on September 16, 2020, CBP officials confirmed the agency’s use of this surveillance product, without a court order, in order to track and identify people in the United States.”

The legislators also recalled that two years ago the Supreme Court held in Carpenter v. United States that a person’s phone data is protected under the Fourth Amendment and generally requires a warrant supported by probable cause.

They added, “CBP officials confirmed to Senate staff that the agency is using Venntel’s location database to search for information collected from phones in the United States without any kind of court order. The agency refused a follow-up request for information about the legal analysis it conducted, and refused to reveal whether or not it has taken the position that the Supreme Court’s Carpenter decision does not apply to location data purchased by the government. CBP outrageously asserted that its legal analysis is privileged and therefore does not have to be shared with Congress. We disagree.

“CBP is not above the law and it should not be able to buy its way around the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, we urge you to investigate CBP’s warrantless use of commercial databases containing Americans’ information, including but not limited to Venntel’s location database.”

Last month, Sens. Warren and Wyden successfully urged Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration Russell George to launch an investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s use of Venntel’s commercial location tracking service without a court order. The IRS reportedly bought the Venntel data with the intention of identifying specific criminal suspects between 2017 and 2018, but the agency allowed the subscription to lapse because they were unable to find any targets of interest.

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