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government tracking your phone
© Tero Vesalainen |
Security & privacy

True or false: The government can track your phone’s location without a warrant

In many TV crime shows, there is a race against time to track criminals through technology. Using city-wide camera footage or triangulating a mobile phone’s signal, police never fail to make an arrest. Tap or click here for five ways you’re being tracked that you must stop immediately.

On other occasions, you’ll see detectives burst through the doors of a district judge with a request for a search or tracking warrant. Well, that is how it’s supposed to work in the real world, too. It turns out that some agencies skirt the rules.

Read on to see how some federal agencies bypass this critical step to track your mobile phone.

Here’s the backstory

In practice, when any government agency needs telecommunications information like tracking or locating a mobile phone, there is a specific process to follow. First, the agency must approach a judge to ask for a warrant.

The agency will then contact the network provider, armed with the warrant, and request the provider hand over whatever data they are after. But this process can take some time, and there is a bit of bureaucratic red tape.

However, sneaky federal agencies have figured out a way to eliminate the middleman. According to thousands of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) documents, federal agencies sidestepped the warrant requests and bought location information from third-party data providers instead.

The ACLU claims that Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) violated Americans’ Fourth Amendment right “against unreasonable government searches and seizures.”

ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2020 relating to warrantless searches and sued the Department of Homeland Security to respond by December that year. The litigation is still ongoing, but the ACLU decided to release all documentation.

In addition to CBP and ICE, other agencies implicated are the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and several offices within DHS Headquarters.

Search by numbers

The report details how the DHS spent millions of dollars buying location information from third-party data brokers, Venntel and Babel Street.

But how much information do these companies collect? According to court documents, Venntel claims that it collects more than 15 billion location points from over 250 million mobile devices daily.

ACLU also obtained spreadsheets containing data purchased from Venntel. The “small subset of data” had 6,168 pages of location records containing approximately 336,000 location points. Over three days in 2018, the DHS obtained 113,654 location points, roughly 26 points per minute.

With unfettered access to millions of mobile devices, any government agency can track whomever they want without repercussions or interference from a judge.

The ACLU states, “by searching through this massive trove of location information at their whim, government investigators can identify and track specific individuals or everyone in a particular area, learning details of our private activities and associations.”

What you can do about it

Law enforcement’s activities have highlighted the dangers of data brokers. John Oliver did a fantastic piece on the practice, and you can read Kim’s take on the subject.

Any app you use can collect information on you. Unfortunately, the disclaimer that it can do so is usually tucked away far down on the App Store page.

It’s not just apps but tech giants, too. Companies like Facebook are notorious for keeping track of everything you do and building up a profile on your habits, behaviors and purchases.

One way to cut down on apps tracking your activity is to switch off personalized advertising. Here’s how to do that on an iPhone:

  • Open Settings and tap Privacy.
  • Tap Tracking.
  • Slide the toggle next to Allow Apps to Request to Track to the left to turn off this feature.

Here’s how to do it on Android:

  • Open the Settings app and tap Google.
  • Tap Ads and toggle the Opt out of Ads Personalization switch.

Keep reading

30-second privacy check: See what companies you’re unknowingly sharing personal data with

Suicide hotline caught selling caller data to for-profit companies

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