December 02, 2020

Wyden, Warren, Markey, Schatz Secure DHS IG Investigation of CBP Phone Location Data Surveillance Program

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, today announced that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will launch an inspector general investigation into Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) warrantless tracking of phones in the United States following an inquiry from the senators earlier this year.

“If federal agencies are tracking American citizens without warrants, the public deserves answers and accountability,” Wyden said. “I won’t accept anything less than a thorough and swift inspector general investigation that sheds light on CBP’s phone location data surveillance program.”

“CBP is not above the law and refused to answer questions about purchasing people’s mobile location history without a warrant  -- including from shady data brokers like Venntel. I’m glad that the Inspector General agreed to our request to investigate this potentially unconstitutional abuse of power by the CBP because we must protect the public's Fourth amendment rights to be free from warrantless searches,” Senator Warren said.

“Americans are increasingly concerned that they cannot travel, move, or go about their daily lives without being tracked. Information about where we are and where we have been is highly sensitive, and it’s time for answers about exactly how the Department of Homeland Security is accessing this type of data. I am proud to partner with Senator Wyden on this effort to uncover and stop any inappropriate or unlawful surveillance that may be taking place. The right to privacy must not become a thing of the past,” Markey said.

As revealed by public contracts, CBP has paid a government contractor named Venntel nearly half a million dollars for access to a commercial database containing location data mined from applications on millions of Americans’ mobile phones. CBP officials also confirmed the agency’s warrantless tracking of phones in the United States using Venntel’s product in a September 16, 2020 call with Senate staff.

In 2018, the Supreme Court held in Carpenter v. United States that the collection of significant quantities of historical location data from Americans’ cell phones is a search under the Fourth Amendment and therefore requires a warrant.

In September 2020, Wyden and Warren successfully pressed for an inspector general investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s use of Venntel’s commercial location tracking service without a court order.

A copy of DHS’ letter opening its inspector general investigation is available here.

A copy of the senators’ October 2020 letter is available here. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, also joined the senators in sending the October 2020 request.