How the U.S. Government Obtains and Uses Cellphone Location Data | WSJ


(light music) – [Narrator] You’re probably aware that different apps on your cellphone can track your movements. That location data is
commercially available along with other personal information like your social media
profile, email address, and date of birth. But what the Wall Street
Journal has learned is that the government has
also bought a commercial data and is using it for some
forms of law enforcement. – Two components of the
Department of Homeland Security are using this
app-generated marketing data for law enforcement purposes. The fact that there’re
millions of cellphones and cellphone locations in this database makes it one of the larger
domestic surveillance efforts that we’ve become aware
of in recent years. It raises a lot of questions
among the Americans about their privacy and what kind of information corporations are collecting on them, and what those corporations are
doing with that information. (light music) – [Narrator] This is how it works. You get this popup and agree to let an app use your location. A travel app may want it to suggest nearby hotels or airports. Rideshare apps want to
know where to pick you up. But often those apps are
also sharing your location with marketers who’re using
it for targeted ads, research, analysis and even reselling it. But what we found is that, in some cases, that consumer data is
being resold to companies that buy and sell data for the government. According to people
familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by
the Wall Street Journal, the Trump administration
has purchased the database that maps the movements
of millions of cellphones in the U.S., and it’s using it for immigration
and border enforcement. (light music) In 2018, data tracking
contributed to the discovery of a drug-smuggling tunnel according to people with
knowledge of the operation. – Sources describe this
one case down in Arizona, a border town called, San Luis, where a man had allegedly built a tunnel between his property, which was
an abandoned KFC restaurant, and the Mexican border. Police say that smugglers
were using this tunnel, but the interesting thing is, when this person was arrested, none of the court records indicate that they found this tunnel
based on cell records. This data was showing cellphone’s moving from one side of the border to the other and investigator surmised there must be an illegal tunnel there and began further investigation that led the arrest of this person. – [Narrator] In a statement
to the Wall Street Journal, a CBP spokesman said, “While CBP is being provided
access to location information, “it is important to note
that such information “does not include
cellular phone tower data, “is not ingested in bulk, “and does not include the
individual user’s identity.” The government would not discuss details about how it is using the data. But people familiar with some
of the government efforts say it is used to generate
investigative leads about possible illegal border crossings, and for detection or
tracking of migrant groups. The government’s location data efforts are also described opaquely in the U.S. Department
of Homeland Security’s Privacy Assessment. One reads, “The goal
is to utilize this data “to detect the presence
of – but not identify – “individuals in an area
which CBP has identified “as an area of interest, “consistent with CBP
statutory authorities, “federal law, and DHS policy.” (upbeat music) – [Woman’s Voice] Your average
consumer looks at their phone over 150 times a day. – [Narrator] The marketing
technology ecosystem has taken off in recent years. (upbeat music) – [Man’s Voice] Marketers create audiences based on rich device-level attributes including location, platform, device type and app (mumbles). All this data has built on what more than 250 million
mobile consumers do in real life. Every day, – [Narrator] It’s big business
and there are many companies collecting all sorts of different data, anything from the speed to a traveling, to what floor you’re on, to
your social media profiles. Some companies known as data brokers buy different sets of these
data and combine them to create even more sophisticated
individual digital profiles while the privacy policies
of these companies say they do not keep personal
information and explain that, to them, you were just
a few letters or numbers known as an Ad-ID. Experts we spoke to say that,
by using large data sets, it’s easy to figure out
who a phone belongs to, which is one of the reasons why this data is so
valuable to the government. – The location data is some
of the most sensitive data that exists. – [Narrator] Alan Butler
is the general counsel of the Electronic Privacy
Information Center, a nonprofit research and
advocacy center based in D.C.. – There are a number of different ways that a company that
obtains these data sets could identify a person. One way might be by mapping
the locations over time because people live in operative patterns, the companies are more concerned
with discrete connections. They wanna tie everything
together in an automated way. And the easiest way for them to do that is by using identifiers, the Ad-ID, which is gonna connect the dots, all the dots of them will add data, but also email addresses,
Facebook profiles, or Twitter profiles, or other
sort of app profile data. And so, the more data those
companies can get about you, the more they can connect it. (light music) – [Narrator] If the
government wanted to get that kind of data from
your cellphone provider, they have to get a warrant from a judge. But because this data is
for sale, for marketers, they are able to buy it and
access it without a warrant. – Most recently, the Supreme Court in the Carpenter versus United States case restricted the government’s ability to use a court order
to get commercial data from the phone company, which is the data about where
your phone is connecting on the cellphone network. The Supreme Court has
not directly addressed the purchasing of commercial data, the federal law doesn’t
impose restrictions and the circumstance under
which the federal government can collect personal data
under the Privacy Act, but that also can be tricky if the company never
actually stores the data in a government database. – [Narrator] Recently, some
companies have taken steps to alert users about location data. – This market advertising
data on smartphones is barely 10 years old and already we’re seeing that consumers are taking more
control over their privacy in ways that could’ve hurt this industry. Apple and its latest update made it so that it reminded users how
often apps are tracking them. And some industry insiders have said that the amount of
location data has plummeted since Apple made that change. Users are becoming
broadly much more aware of how their phones are tracking
them and taking steps to limit what kind of apps have
accessed to their location. – [Narrator] Critics argue that
if companies have this data, then why shouldn’t the
government also have access to it for crime prevention. – I think the reaction that
law enforcement should be able to get access to data that
the companies have access to, it kinda falls into two common traps. One is that it assumes that the company should have access to that data, too, but even given the fact that some companies are accessed to data, I think law enforcement use the data, it’s just a fundamental different thing because the government
exercises the power of the state and so we’ve always had
a special set of rules for the government’s collection of data and surveillance of individuals. – [Narrator] Right now, there is no comprehensive
U.S. privacy law. The European Union, in 2016, passed the General Data
Protection Regulation, which more tightly controls
how European data can be used. In the U.S., there are ongoing efforts to introduce tougher national
privacy laws in Congress. – Programs like this are
certainly going to fuel the call for a comprehensive privacy
law in the United States that limits the way
corporations can share data that they collect on users. California has taken some steps towards passing some
greater privacy protections, but federally, there’s no
law that stops or limits what corporations can do
with the data they collect on their users in this particular market. That’s how it ended up in
the hands of the government.

100 Comments

  1. If you don’t need to have a smart phone for a job or something else, get rid of it. Stop using “smart” products. Freedom includes personal privacy, and we shouldn’t keep giving it away!

  2. YOU are voluntarily and willingly giving up your data to everyone including the government for free but no, you have to live your entire life on your stupid smartphone.

  3. Remember that time when the Obama administration was exposed by Edward Snowden that they government was illegally spying on Allied Nations along with all its citizens? Did you even know the US government spent multi-billions of dollars building a secret DataCenter in Utah using your own tax dollars?

  4. Edward Snowden came out a decade ago and said the Government keeps logs on everything every single person has ever done online. This reporting is disingenuous because it only tells a fraction of the data they have.

  5. They use a Swiss company wich they and the german BND own partly through a shell-company in Lichtenstein. Or is that to much info?

  6. I would love to see a video just based on how this companies are collecting data & reselling it for marketing purpose & also other forms to use this data. Make us more aware WSJ

  7. Hey, hey, hey, China China, do you know what they do in China, oh-hoh-ho-hoooo, you oughtta know. You oughtta pay attention to that. Nothing to see here, not in the U.S. Shoo, shoo.

  8. Steals data. surveillance state. Dystopia. Oppression and torture. Authoritarian corrupt USA. Oops wrong country meant to say china. White people can relax now.

  9. U can't blame them, because the app asks for permission (they mention the uses in terms and conditions)
    It is us who allow this. It is in OUR hands. We choose the easy way, then pay the price.

  10. I feel pretty safe for now, seeing as I'm not a illegal immigrant nor do I sell drugs. Also, as a side note I'm NOT saying that the government (or companies thank you very much) should have the data either, so don't start a spectacle about around that.

  11. Why embellishing Apple, when iPhones send users data to both US and Chinese big companies (Alphabet and Tencent) for "security" reasons… BTW, most of the tracking happens by APIs that apps use to function (like login APIs from Facebook).

  12. I still believe that forcing someone to allow access to private information to get an app that's advertised as free is a form of extortion.

  13. I wanna know how the phones update locations while underground. Or do they just see the device disappear in one place and reappear in another?

  14. So we pay for phones. And they sell our data. How is that ethical. We need a data revolution, at least give me a dividend. €unts

  15. VPN. And my Huawei P30 Pro allows me to block all outgoing location requests and if any app is trying to use it in the background, I get notified. Probably why Huawei is banned from the US market.

  16. This is why we need to reform laws that protect users online and on phones. It's so wrong that we all have zero options to opt out of this kind of thing. We all should have free rights and privacy in person and online and on our own phone which is apart of us because we use the phone for everything we do every day

  17. Wow, that’s pretty stupid. When I’m in my tunnel just outside Houston, I leave my phone and watch at home.

  18. instead of purchasing data from big companies why doesnt the govt. ask the public to voluntarily share their personal details in exchange for better services.

  19. Good! Anyone that isn’t a criminal should be glad that data is actually being used to help us instead of always being used to advertise to us.

  20. Feel too bad for the Prisoner states of America aka PSA ! 😂 Atleast my government doesn’t stop me from breathing free!

  21. No worries its so the same as the huwai phone btw designed in the USA ( by foreigners) and made in the CPR ? they all spy on us .

  22. How does a cell phone ping 28’ under ground? I was in a mine shaft once about 500’ into the mine I got a text message….. so I am assuming that the signal has no issue going through minerals

  23. A cell phone as to connect to an antena which that antena has to get your location so all your information is in the cell tower and those towers are like 400 yards apart so imagen

  24. Consolidating all this power within the government is dangerous because it could be used to oppress enemies of the state. Humans are very easily manipulated. They will brloive anything they read off the internet over anything they see with they're own eyes.

  25. Laws are a little to little to late .The government knows this that's why it's slow to move on protections for user of the US ..

  26. It sucks that most apps these days would not work unless you give them access to your gallery, contacts and all, even if it is not your choice X-l

  27. And this is surprising because………….?
    I enjoy Googling random things I have no interest or need to see what starts to pop up. It's hilarious.

  28. A lot of fear but then again. Don’t need to be secure from terrorists and stuff? Some of your privacy needs to be given up.

  29. stop complaining about the government buying this data and start trying to stop these companies from collecting and storing the data.

  30. SIMPLE – Don't use a smart phone. Just use a mobile phone as a phone! Break your addiction to that cyber spy that you allow. Be aware – if you didn't pay for a product, YOU ARE THE PRODUCT!

  31. I don't want the government tracking people, but I understand that there may be situations in which they need to track people (in which case they had better have a warrant, and warrants need to not be given-out freely). Private companies do not qualify for those situations.

  32. I've been considering to downgrade to a phone without gps. Kepping it simple, just calls and texts. I'm annoyed by those ads I get related to personal conversations

  33. Ooh so mindblown! Get a life #wsjokers, these are open standards written by a consortium of experts (not you guys lol) and engineers that can be readily accessed in the ITU and 3gpp websites (hope those acronyms didn't fry your brain cells). WSJ pretending to be cutting edge when they're not lol

  34. Do all you people honestly believe this planet has any kind of future?
    All you people better find Christ, Jesus because if your hope is in this planet………….

  35. You can't expect the federal government to act in the interest of the people. The federal government is too corrupt to care about us

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