by Jayson Hawkins
The double-edged sword of technology has made it possible for us to find virtually any information we are seeing in an instant, yet it has also made it possible for us to be found by any agency that can afford to harvest out data. Although the Supreme Court tackled the issue in the Carpenter decision, effectively ruling that a warrant was required before law enforcement could track people using cell-site location data, some agencies have continued to keep tabs on individuals’ whereabouts by purchasing data harvested from phone apps.
If employing third-party data brokers is not explicitly forbidden by the language of Carpenter, such practices certainly violate its spirit. Congress launched an investigation in 2020 into one purveyor of phone app data, Venntel, which had been employed by at least three federal agencies. Customs and Border Protection, for example, has utilized Venntel’s services to track individuals even outside the U.S. and had paid almost $500,000 to access that platform.
Another of Venntel’s customers, the DEA, abruptly terminated its contract. It was unclear whether this was due to the DEA’s desire to avoid having to answer questions about their practices on Capitol Hill or, as one source claimed, simply because the data furnished by Venntel was not useful for making drug arrests. Either way, the cancellation of services does not mean the DEA has given up on skirting warrants. There are currently no policies in place to keep the agency from employing another provider that has yet to be subjected to a Congressional probe; otherwise, the DEA may strike up another contract with Venntel when the company is no longer under legislators’ spotlight.
The Supreme Court may have protected us from being tracked without a warrant from cell towers, but that has not stopped law enforcement from doing it through other means. Unless or until Congress enacts laws to end warrantless tracking across the board, Big Brother will be watching.
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