The US Internal Revenue Service being investigated for using location data without warrant..the great temptation for government agencies

October 8, 2020 |

Governments love data. All governments and for as long as there have been governments.  The Assyrian empire as long ago as 2025BC developed a buerocracy and kept records about their subjects. The Romans took it to a new level with the census.  And with every new age and development the collection has become more sophisticated.  But there were always costs and inefficiencies in collecting, managing and using data. The East German authorities essentially drowned under the flood of information from informants and the obsessive surveillance of the Stasi.  In the digital age collection, aggregation and use of masses of data has been simplified.  And data can be used more effectively with enhanced computer power and algorithms. And the temptation to interfere with privacy while using data is a constant one for government agencies, especially those chasing revenue. As can be seen in the report  The IRS Is Being Investigated for Using Location Data Without a Warrant which reports on the IRS buying location data to track individuals. Buying customer lists has been a longstanding practice in the United States and quite legal because its privacy related legislation does not cover that practice.  Buying data harvested from phone apps is just a variation on that theme.  But buying data which would enable an agency to track someone, that is something else when done without a search warrant.

It is a salutory warning that without proper constraints and rigorous enforcement governments may succumb to temptation. 

The article provides:

The body tasked with oversight of the IRS announced in a letter that it will investigate the agency’s use of location data harvested from ordinary apps installed on peoples’ phones, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Motherboard.

The move comes after Senators Ron Wyden and Elizabeth Warren demanded a formal investigation into how the IRS used the location data to track Americans without a warrant.

“We are going to conduct a review of this matter, and we are in the process of contacting the CI [Criminal Investigation] division about this review,” the letter, signed by J. Russell George, the Inspector General, and addressed to the Senators, reads. CI has a broad mandate to investigate abusive tax schemes, bankruptcy fraud, identity theft, and many more similar crimes. Wyden’s office provided Motherboard with a copy of the letter on Tuesday.

In June, officials from the IRS Criminal Investigation unit told Wyden’s office that it had purchased location data from a contractor called Venntel, and that the IRS had tried to use it to identify individual criminal suspects. Venntel obtains location data from innocuous looking apps such as games, weather, or e-commerce apps, and then sells access to the data to government clients.

A Wyden aide previously told Motherboard that the IRS wanted to find phones, track where they were at night, use that as a proxy as to where the individual lived, and then use other data sources to try and identify the person. A person who used to work for Venntel previously told Motherboard that Venntel customers can use the tool to see which devices are in a particular house, for instance.


The IRS’ attempts were not successful though, as the people the IRS was looking for weren’t included in the particular Venntel data set, the aide added.

But the IRS still obtained this data without a warrant, and the legal justification for doing so remains unclear. The aide said that the IRS received verbal approval to use the data, but stopped responding to their office’s inquiries.

The Inspector General specifically said they would investigate the legal argument used.

“You requested that TIGTA investigate CI’s use of commercial databases in the performance of its duties, and that TIGTA examine the legal analysis IRS lawyers performed to authorize this practice. Your concern is that CI’s use of the data described above may not be consistent with the holding of the Supreme Court in the case Carpenter v. United States,” the Inspector General’s letter continues, referring to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

“Upon compilation, to the extent allowable under the law, we will advise you of the results,” the letter adds.

The IRS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Tuesday, Motherboard reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had paid for access to Venntel’s “global” dataset, meaning the agency could track phones beyond U.S. borders.



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