Mid-September 2023

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), along with other U.S. law enforcement agencies, bought access to—and has used for years—commercially sourced location data harvested from U.S. citizens’ and others’ smartphones, revealed 404 Media.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on September 12 finding that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Intelligence and Analysis (OIA) “is not fully implementing activities intended to monitor whether personnel are following its policies to protect the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of U.S. persons, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.” (Original link)

A former location data company worker indicated that Commercial Telemetry Data (CTD) is typically used to track “herds of people”, but that it can be and has been used to monitor specific targets. Reports indicated that data has been used to identify border crossings and consequently arrest people. Since the agencies paid a commercial vendor for the data, they have not been required to acquire a warrant or another court order to obtain the information.

CBP, in response to investigations, stated that “CBP officers, agents, and analysts are provided with access to the vendor’s interface on a case-by-case basis, and are only able to view a limited sample of anonymized data consistent with existing border security or law enforcement operations.”

CBP discontinued the use of CTD at the end Fiscal Year 2023, on September 30, 2023. The reasons for discontinuation are unknown. Nonetheless, CBP publicly stated that if the agency “identifies a critical mission need to re-acquire a vendor who provides CTD, we would ensure CBP would engage Oversight, Legal, and Privacy entities at the agency and department level.”

—“Homeland Security: Office of Intelligence and Analysis Should Improve Privacy Oversight and Assessment of Its Effectiveness.” Washington: U. S. Government Accountability Office, August 28, 2023. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-23-105475.

—Cox, Joseph. “Customs and Border Protection Says It Will Stop Buying Smartphone Location Data.” 404 Media, September 12, 2023. https://www.404media.co/customs-and-border-protection-stop-buying-location-data

Sector(s): Border-Wide

Agency(ies): CBP, DHS

Event Type(s): Civil Liberties or Privacy Infringement

Accountability Status: GAO Investigation Closed, Unknown

Victim Classification: