U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
Data brokers such as Mobilewalla may enable government to "buy its way around the Fourth Amendment" and obtain sensitive data about Americans' activities without a warrant
United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), House Committee on Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Representative Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) sent a letter to data broker Mobilewalla regarding a recent report by the company that indicated they were surreptitiously collecting information on Black Lives Matter protesters via their mobile devices. The lawmakers requested information regarding the surveillance of Americans participating in First Amendment-protected activities.
The lawmakers' letter follows a June 2020 Mobilewalla report that identified characteristics of American protestors at Black Lives Matter demonstrations using location data, including data on where protesters resided, collected from protesters' mobile devices. The report analyzed data from almost 17,000 devices at specified protest locations in New York City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Atlanta. Mobilewalla has boasted of having "billions of data points daily" from 276 million unique devices in the U.S. alone.
"We are deeply concerned that Mobilewalla's report advertises that the company can target thousands of Americans on the basis of their exercise of First Amendment rights. This use could include political targeting based on personal or religious beliefs, which Mobilewalla has previously facilitated," the lawmakers wrote to Anindya Datta, CEO and Chairman of Mobilewalla. "More concerning, once profiled on the basis of their location data or other information collected about them, people can be targeted not only for marketing or political purposes, but for law or immigration enforcement."
Data brokers such as Mobilewalla purchase or collect data from web browsers and apps installed on mobile devices, assembling detailed profiles on individual users. Some brokers may enable the government to obtain sensitive data about Americans' activities that the government would otherwise need a warrant to compel. In 2018, the Supreme Court held that, under the Fourth Amendment, the government must generally obtain a warrant before obtaining cell phone location data from telecommunications companies. However, the purchase of data from a third-party company such as Mobilewalla may be allowing the government to, in the words of one expert, "buy its way around the Fourth Amendment." The lawmakers asked Mobilewalla if it is tracking protesters in Portland, Oregon, and sharing that information with federal government agencies, which have recently been deployed - over the opposition of the Mayor and Governor - against protesters.
The lawmakers have requested a response to their letter no later than August 17, 2020.
The lawmakers' letter is the latest in their oversight of the collection and sale of sensitive data by data brokers. Last month, Senators Warren and Wyden, and Representatives Maloney and DeSaulnier opened an investigation into Venntel, Inc., a data broker contracting with numerous federal government agencies, including those that conduct law and immigration enforcement. The lawmakers sought information about the company's provision of individuals' location data to agencies without a warrant, including in connection with the response to the coronavirus crisis. Senator Warren recently joined Senator Wyden urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate widespread privacy violations by companies in the advertising technology industry that are selling private data about millions of Americans.