- Customs and Border Protection paid $US476,000 to Venntel, a firm that gathers and sells location data from people’s phones, according to government procurement records published this month.
- Venntel is currently being investigated by House lawmakers, who have raised concerns about its business of collecting people’s location data and selling it to government agencies and other third parties.
- Law enforcement agencies like the FBI and ICE are increasingly using phone location data to track people down. Unlike most personal data, law enforcement can purchase location data from private firms like Venntel without a warrant.
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Customs and Border Patrol in August signed a $US476,000 contract with Venntel, a controversial firm that gathers and sells people’s phone location data, according to public procurement records first reported by Motherboard.
Venntel sells a software product that collects location data harvested from smartphone apps that people download. Phone location data is a valuable surveillance tool – even when it’s “anonymised,” location data can be combined with other data points to keep tabs on individuals’ movements.
And while law enforcement agencies typically need a warrant to access personal information on people’s phones, location data aggregated by firms like Venntel can simply be purchased without a court’s approval.
The CBP contract states that the agency purchased “Venntel software,” but does not elaborate on how it will be used.
A CBP spokesperson said in a statement to Business Insider that the location data is being used to “enforce U.S. law at the border,” and added that the data is anonymised.
“CBP officers, agents, and analysts are provided with access to [Venntel’s] interface on a case-by-case basis, and are only able to view a limited sample of anonymised data consistent with existing border security or law enforcement operations,” the spokesperson said.
CBP isn’t the first federal agency to contract with Venntel. DHS has previously purchased location data from the firm and used it to track down people suspected of crossing into the US illegally, the Wall Street Journal reported in February.
The firm is now being investigated by the Democrat-led House Oversight and Reform Committee, which sent a letter to Venntel in June questioning its clients and data sources.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who chairs the committee, said in a statement to Business Insider that lawmakers are still awaiting answers from Venntel and that the new CBP contract raises more questions.
“This new contract raises even more concerns about the cosy and ongoing relationship between the federal government and these data brokers, which operate in the shadows and can amass mountains of sensitive personal data without any restrictions. We will continue to monitor this situation closely and press for full compliance with our previous request,” Maloney said.
Venntel did not respond to a request for comment.