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  • (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.