In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a warrant is needed before government agencies can seize your location history from cell-site records. That opinion, Carpenter v. United States, often described as a landmark ruling, has actually become little more than a legal watermark thanks to the machinations of government agencies.
When a government agency wants to know where you’ve been, or anything about you, all it has to do is consult the trove of sensitive personal information on millions of Americans scraped from apps and purchased from third-party data brokers. No warrants required. As they used to say in internet ads, the government knows all about you with this one weird trick.
Two responses to PPSA Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests show how freely the FBI and DIA access Americans’ personal information.
The FBI has a team dedicated to working with cell tower data. Their specialties include “historical CDR (call detail records) analysis and geospatial mapping,” which enables the tracking of people across multiple towers. The FBI conducts “tower dump analysis,” which seems to be the collection of bulk data from cell towers and “real-time cellular tracking” services. The documents obtained by PPSA show that the FBI regularly lends out these services to state and local governments.
The Defense Intelligence Agency documents show that the agency uses commercially available data for “cover operations.” Does this mean DIA is using data to help agents impersonate real people? Or is DIA using our personal information as material from which to create fake, chimeric identities, using a blend of personal information from multiple real people?
These are just glimpses into how the government uses our personal information, from our movements to our personal interests, relationships, and beliefs. PPSA will continue to use FOIAs and lawsuits to dig out more details about these practices.