Another agency draws attention of senators for warrantless use of phone data

Customs and Border Protection spent nearly half a million dollars on a subscription to Venntel's phone location database.
(U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Flickr)

Democratic senators called for an inspector general (IG) investigation into Customs and Border Protection’s half-million-dollar subscription to a commercial database containing the phone location data of millions of citizens.

The senators further requested that CBP‘s IG look into the agency’s legal analysis prior to beginning use of Venntel‘s surveillance tool without either a warrant or the Department of Homeland Security‘s Privacy Office performing a privacy impact assessment.

This is the second time in two months senators have asked an IG to investigate an agency’s warrantless use of the Northern Virginia-based company’s database. The first led to an ongoing investigation within the IRS.

“CBP is not above the law, and it should not be able to buy its way around the Fourth Amendment,” reads the senators’ letter to DHS IG Joseph Cuffari sent Friday. “Accordingly, we urge you to investigate CBP’s warrantless use of commercial databases containing Americans’ information, including but not limited to Venntel’s location database.”


Officials confirmed CBP’s domestic phone tracking on a Sept. 16 call with Senate staff. The letter signed by Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Brian Schatz of Hawaii notes the agency refused a followup request for information and stated that its legal analysis is privileged.

The senators pointed out the Supreme Court‘s 2018 Carpenter v. United States decision, which found that collection of significant quantities of historical phone location data constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment requiring a warrant. They want to know if CBP lawyers felt the ruling did not apply to data purchased by the government.

When IRS IG J. Russell George agreed to investigate his agency’s use of Venntel’s surveillance tool he did so with the caveat that Congress would be informed of the results “to the extent allowable under the law.”

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