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The Crossroads of Special Operations

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

How the Federal Government Buys Our Cell Phone Location Data | EFF

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Numerous popular mobile applications share your location information with other parties.

Our smartphone applications monitor our movements with high accuracy and frequency. These data brokers collect location information from app developers and sell it to government authorities. The military uses the data to spy on individuals abroad, ICE to monitor persons inside the United States and criminal investigators such as the FBI and the Secret Service. The ad tech ecosystem offers several options for interested parties to sift through the torrents of personal information broadcast during advertising auctions. Some may collect data directly from applications, while others get data only from other data brokers.

Since these “bidstream” data flows are mostly uncontrolled, businesses are allowed to gather and retain the data as it rushes by for later use. It is almost hard to determine whether applications share information with location data brokers. The interaction between applications and brokers has been disclosed through GDPR reporting, technological analysis, and right-to-know demands. One business claims to collect data from “over 80,000” distinct applications.

Venntel, a subsidiary of the commercial agency Gravy Analytics, is the vendor with which we have the most knowledge. Current and previous customers include, at a minimum, the IRS, the Department of Homeland Security and its subsidiaries ICE and CBP, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2020, NRK Beta filed requests under the Right to Know provision of the GDPR to track how data about his whereabouts reached Venntel. After a protracted inquiry by Senator Ron Wyden, Mobilewalla disclosed in 2021 that it, too, had sold data to Venntell. Venntel enables users to search for devices in a particular region and see their previous whereabouts.

It may not include identifying information such as names or phone numbers, but this does not make it “anonymous.” The corporation charges $650,000 per year for access to all of its data from an area, which is updated daily and transferred to a government-controlled server.

 

Source: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2022/06/how-federal-government-buys-our-cell-phone-location-data

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