A 2018 Supreme Court decision said that if government wants to track individual American citizens using cell phone data, then it would need a warrant to do so. 

But it turns out there was a huge loophole in the decision, one the Defense Intelligence Agency used to gather just this kind of specific tracking information.

The agency bought the data from private companies, whose phone apps routinely tack users’ movements. The government thinks this is perfectly legal, and detailed its activities in a memo to Sen. Ron Wyden:

“D.I.A. does not construe the [Supreme Court’s] Carpenter decision to require a judicial warrant endorsing purchase or use of commercially available data for intelligence purposes,” the agency memo said.

It’s not the first time, nor is the DIA the first agency, to buy such tracking data from private companies. The stated intent is to track foreign threats to U.S. Interests. However:

…the unidentified broker or brokers from which the government buys bulk smartphone location data does not separate American and foreign users. The Defense Intelligence Agency instead processes the data as it arrives to filter those records which appear to be on domestic soil and puts them in a separate database.

Agency analysts may only query that separate database of Americans’ data if they receive special approval, the memo said, adding, “Permission to query the U.S. device location data has been granted five times in the past two and a half years for authorized purposes.”

Warrants are a check on government snoops. Efforts to get around that check –even in the name of national security – are troubling for privacy advocates and civil libertarians.

Image Credit: By Cellofellow (Gadsden_flag.svg) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons