A congressional committee is investigating to look into the sale of millions of mobile phones' location data to law enforcement agencies in the United States.
Breach of privacy?
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform revealed that it began an investigation in connection with two Democratic senators on the products of Venntel Inc.
The company in question is a data broker and software company based in Virginia which has contracts with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and several other government entities.
The list includes the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) criminal investigation division and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The letter which noted the beginning of the investigation also noted that the majority of United States citizens use mobile phones that have apps capable of gathering accurate location information 24/7. This feature leads to major concerns about privacy and security.
The community requested the company, Venntel, to release detailed information of its clients, where it gets its data from, and the methods it utilized to ensure the security and privacy of its data.
The investigation into Venntel is the latest in a string of steps that suggest the interest of regulators and lawmakers in increasing the use of cellphone location data by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
However, Venntel's president, Chris Gildea, did not give an immediate reply to requests for explanations regarding the investigation of the company.
According to Business Insider, the DHS utilized the location data they gathered from Venntel to locate illegal immigrants who crossed the border to get into the United States.
A more recent incident is when the FBI renewed its contract with Venntel with updated information in May, but the details have not been made public.
Representative Caroline Maloney and Mark DeSaulnier have now sent a letter demanding Venntel to release more information on the company's full list of clients and data sources.
Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ron Wyden also shared their support of the investigation by signing the letter sent to Venntel.
Venntel draws its data from mobile applications such as weather trackers and mobile games, which require location access to play.
The company that originally collected that information then sells the data which is not connected to the customer's name or phone number until it reaches Venntel and other similar companies.
Giving their consent
Consumers generally give their consent that their data will be collected for use in marketing and corporate research. This, however, does not surveillance from the government. The risk brings to surface the question of whether cellphone users are properly notified of what their data will be used for.
In business documents, Gravy Analytics Inc., which owns Venntel, said it is capable of tracking more than 150 million cellphones in the United States every month.
However, it has not made clear how much of the mobile phones' data is made available to government agencies.
Prosecutors have long used mobile data of individuals as evidence in court during trials. Utilization of such information requires reasonable grounds to have a court approve it.
The US Supreme Court increased the requirements needed to obtain data from carriers in June 2018.
It is, however, unclear if the law allows government agencies to buy location data in bulk from marketers instead of from carriers.