Tracking data on our devices is something most of us are generally aware of though often we do very little about it. It’s sometimes the price you pay for either convenience or a lackadaisical approach to just how integral our phones have become to our lives. But even knowing your device is likely tracking you in some way, there had been at least some understanding and even legal precedent that the government wouldn’t be using it or piggybacking the data to know its citizens’ whereabouts. But that appears to be the case with a recent legal filing saying certain government agencies have been purchasing tracking data from third parties.
This newest revelation about the government purchasing tracking data and location information from device apps comes from a report issued by the New York Times late last week. In it, they outline how the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has purchased this data in the form of databases and then actually used it in investigations over the last couple of years.
No big deal right? The government is using the tracking data to take down criminals and that’s well within their right as part of a law enforcement agency. Wrong. Back in 2018, in a case Carpenter v. United States the Supreme Court handed down a ruling about this very practice. In a 5-4 decision, SCOTUS decided that accessing historical cellphone location data without an express warrant is, in fact, illegal. The case marked a clear line in how the government, or in this case, the intelligence community could leverage user data for their own agency gain. The decision was clear and concise. This latest New York Times report suggests the DIA has been in clear violation of the decision.
In response to the accusation they were violating the Carpenter decision, the Defense Intelligence Agency claimed that was referring more to cell tower tracking data history and not the purchase of third-party databases with essentially the same information. It sure seems like they are exploiting a loophole that violates the general spirit of the SCOTUS decision. It was clear that the Supreme Court thought it a Constitutional violation to track citizens without a warrant. This is doing that and they are simply subverting the language.
If the new standing order for government agencies is going to just go to the app store and buy information, including tracking data to track its citizens then we are likely staring down the barrel of a whole host of lawsuits coming down the pike. Because this isn’t the first time. Last year both BuzzFeed and The Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Homeland Security was engaged in similar practices.
Look, I know we all need our phone and simply can’t put it down. But know that this kind of thing with your tracking data is only getting worse. It’s a good reminder now to turn off location access to apps when you can, and maybe you can stay under the government’s radar for just a little longer. Because otherwise, they’ll know your every movement if they want to.