American Military Spy Agencies Buying Users' Location Data from Smartphone Apps Without Warrant

An unclassified memo reveals that DIA tracked commercial databases containing information about the movements of Americans.

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US military spy agencies have been buying location data collected by smartphone apps of millions of Americans without any warrant, according to reports. A recently unclassified memo reveals that senior officials from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon-run department that specializes in military intelligence, made this disclosure to Senator Ron Wyden, the Democrat from Oregon.

The DIA, whose primary objective is to identify threats to American soldiers stationed worldwide, appears to have been buying location data that specifically is related to investigations of foreigners abroad. According to a report in the New York Times, the DIA admitted in the memo that it has been collecting data from private data brokers and it includes smartphone users based both in the United States and abroad.

Tracking Everyone's Movement

apps on phone

The memo reveals that DIA as part of five investigations spanning over a period of two-and-a-half tracked commercial databases containing information about the movements of Americans. "Permission to query the US device location data has been granted five times in the past two and a half years for authorized purposes," according to the DIA memo obtained by the New York Times.

This isn't the first time that such a disclosure has been made. In recent time, news reports have surfaced indicating that government agencies have used commercially available data aggregated from users' smartphones. Last year, the Wall Street Journal found that to agencies run by the Department of Homeland Security — Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — used the cellphone data bought from brokers to patrol the border and investigate undocumented immigrants.

Security Agencies Going Desperate

DIA Headquarters in Washington
DIA Headquarters in Washington Wikimedia Commons

The memo states that DIA "personnel can query the US location database when authorized through a specific process" which requires approval from the top officials of the agency as well as the Office of Oversight and Compliance and the Office of General Counsel. However, they haven't been doing so and instead have been buying similar data from brokers and do not believe that they need a warrant to do so.

The unclassified memo once again shows an emerging loophole in privacy law during the digital age. According to a 2018 ruling known as the Carpenter decision, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution requires the government to obtain a warrant before asking phone companies to share or sell location data of their customers.

Prior to the ruling, government agencies were allowed to get cell phone location records without asking a court for a search warrant by claiming that the information was required as part of an investigation.

DIA Badge
DIA Badge Wikimedia Commons

However, this memo mentions that the DIA isn't bound by the Carpenter decision and doesn't require a warrant before compelling phone companies to share users' location data.

Sen. Wyden last week made said that he intends to propose legislation to add safeguards for Americans' privacy in connection with commercially available location data. He called the practice unacceptable and an intrusion on constitutional privacy rights. "The Fourth Amendment is not for sale," he said.

The memo, understandably, is in response to that. The government's use of commercial databases of location information has come under increasing scrutiny over the past few months. In November it was reported that US military agencies buy location data mined from a Muslim prayer app, Muslim Pro, which has been downloaded over 98 million times.

Prior to that, in October, BuzzFeed reported that Department of Homeland Security officials produced a legal memo claiming that law enforcement agencies did not need to obtain a search warrant in order to use smartphone location data.