Tax Agency Watchdog Investigates IRS Use of Cell Phone Location Data


WASHINGTON — The Inspector General who oversees the Internal Revenue Service has said he will initiate a review of the legal basis for the agency’s use of a commercial tool that allows warrantless surveillance of cell phones.

In a letter to Capitol Hill shared with the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russel George said he was reviewing the agency’s use of software sold by Venntel Inc ., a data company that caters to government clients in the intelligence, military and law enforcement space.

The investigation took place at the request of the senses. Ron Wyden (D, Ore.) And Elizabeth Warren (D, Mass.), Who wrote to the Inspector General last month expressing concerns that warrantless cell phone monitoring could violate the detention of a landmark 2018 Supreme Court case that requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant to track suspects’ cell phones. Mr Wyden is investigating the use of cell phone location data for home monitoring.

“We will conduct a review of this matter and are in the process of contacting the CI Division regarding this review,” George wrote to Senators. A spokesperson for the inspector general did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Learn more about cell phone location data

The IRS Criminal Investigation Unit, or IRS CI, had a subscription to access Venntel data in 2017 and 2018, and unsuccessfully attempted to use the data to attempt to identify mobile devices that were present at the scene of a crime, the Journal reported. The unit stopped using the service after failing to generate investigative leads.

“CI takes the privacy of citizens very seriously and follows all laws and regulations surrounding this privacy while administering the all-important law enforcement mission of protecting our country’s tax system,” said a spokesperson. IRS CI word.

Venntel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The use of a tool that collects location records from millions of U.S. cell phones has raised privacy and civil liberties concerns over the mass collection of personal data from Americans and their use by US forces. order. Venntel has contracts with several components of the Department of Homeland Security, and many other specialist brokers sell similar data to a range of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Brokers like Venntel obtain cell phone location data from the marketing industry and sell the access to government agencies through its software platform. The data is taken from regular mobile phone applications that record location information to serve targeted advertisements.

Typically, the owners of the phones are not identified in these datasets. Instead, users are represented by an alphanumeric string. However, the actual movements of the phone often give clues to its ownership. For example, where a phone is in the evening and at night is usually where its owner lives, allowing analysts and investigators to identify the owner.

Marketing data has enormous surveillance potential. The Journal reported that a group of academics could track the movements of Russian military officers using a business platform similar to Venntel. Additionally, Venntel’s tool has been used to identify and track suspects illegally crossing the US border.

The National Security Agency warned in an August bulletin to government staff that location services on cell phones should be severely limited or disabled where possible.

“Location data can be extremely valuable and must be protected. It can reveal details about the number of users in a location, movements of users and supplies, daily routines (user and organizational), and may expose otherwise unknown associations between users and locations, ”warned the bulletin.

The use of this data also raises new legal questions which have not yet been dealt with by the courts.

At issue, a 2018 Supreme Court decision in Carpenter v. United States, claiming that geographic location data taken from cell phones in the United States is a specially protected category of information because it reveals a lot about the personal lives of Americans. The court limited the ability of law enforcement to obtain this data directly from mobile operators without court oversight.

But the data used by Venntel does not come from mobile operators but from marketing companies who collect it through software applications.

Marketing data is bought largely in the commercial world, and government lawyers argue that they buy a commercial product on the open market, as are the thousands of marketing firms, investment firms, and other business entities. who regularly use this data.

Write to Byron Tau at [email protected]

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Esther L. Steinbach

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