The Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog will investigate the use of mobile-phone surveillance technologies to track Americans without a warrant, reports the Wall Street Journal. The department’s inspector general told five Democratic senators his office would initiate an audit “to determine if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its components have developed, updated, and adhered to policies related to cell-phone surveillance device.” The letter responded to a request from Sens. Ron Wyden (OR), Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey (MA), Sherrod Brown (OH) and Brian Schatz (HI) to probe whether the purchase of commercial cellphone data on Americans for law-enforcement purposes was lawful.
Several DHS agencies are buying access to a product from a commercial broker, Venntel Inc., of Herndon, Va., that contained location information on millions of U.S. mobile devices, drawn from games, weather apps and other common mobile applications. The department also buys software from Babel Street, another vendor that sells location-data products. Such data is widely used by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies for intelligence gathering overseas, but those agencies are largely barred from domestic monitoring. Law-enforcement agencies have concluded that they don’t need a warrant to obtain location data on phones within the U.S. because consumers can opt-out of such location tracking and the data is available for purchase on the open market. The Treasury Department’s inspector general is probing the Internal Revenue Service’s use of the same data for criminal enforcement. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that geographic location data drawn from cellphones in the U.S. is a specially protected class of information because it reveals so much about Americans’ personal lives. The court put limits on law enforcement’s ability to obtain such data directly from cellphone carriers without warrants approved by judges.