National Security

Intelligence agency gathers US smartphone location data without warrants, memo says

Analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) have purchased databases of U.S. smartphone location data in recent years without a warrant, agency officials wrote in a memo to a top Senate Democrat.

DIA analysts have searched American location data five times in the past 2 1/2 years, according to the document released Friday by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The Oregon Democrat had asked the agency whether it was interpreting the 2018 Supreme Court decision in Carpenter v. United States to mean that obtaining data from a third-party broker rather than a phone company does not require a warrant.

“DIA does not construe the Carpenter decision to require a judicial warrant endorsing purchase or use of commercially-available data for intelligence purposes,” the agency responded in the memo.

The New York Times first reported on the DIA document.

Wyden now plans to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to address the matter, his spokesperson told The Hill on Friday.

The bill, known as the Fourth Amendment is Not for Sale Act, would offer new safeguards for U.S. citizens’ data.

Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, said that the DIA memo proves that Congress needs to step in.

“The government cannot simply buy our private data in order to bypass bedrock constitutional protections,” she said in a statement Friday. “Congress must end this lawless practice and require the government to get a warrant for our location data, regardless of its source.”

The release of the DIA memo comes amid a broader debate over reauthorizing three investigative tools whose legal authority lapsed last year. One of those tools is Section 215, which allows intelligence agencies to covertly obtain court orders to collect any business records deemed relevant to national security.

Friday’s confirmation that a government entity is purchasing commercially available location data buttresses a recent wave of reporting on the issue.

Vice News’s Motherboard reported in November that the U.S. military was buying data from a Muslim prayer app via a third-party broker, X-Mode. The app then said it would stop sharing data with the broker.

The Wall Street Journal reported in February that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have used commercial databases to patrol the border and track immigrants.

BuzzFeed News in October reported on an internal DHS memo arguing a warrant is not needed to obtain that sort of data.

Tags cellphones Intelligence agencies Location data Ron Wyden Surveillance

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