Byron Tau at the Wall Street Journal: “The Internal Revenue Service attempted to identify and track potential criminal suspects by purchasing access to a commercial database that records the locations of millions of American cellphones.
The IRS Criminal Investigation unit, or IRS CI, had a subscription to access the data in 2017 and 2018, and the way it used the data was revealed last week in a briefing by IRS CI officials to Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D., Ore.) office. The briefing was described to The Wall Street Journal by an aide to the senator.
IRS CI officials told Mr. Wyden’s office that their lawyers had given verbal approval for the use of the database, which is sold by a Virginia-based government contractor called Venntel Inc. Venntel obtains anonymized location data from the marketing industry and resells it to governments. IRS CI added that it let its Venntel subscription lapse after it failed to locate any targets of interest during the year it paid for the service, according to Mr. Wyden’s aide.
Justin Cole, a spokesman for IRS CI, said it entered into a “limited contract with Venntel to test their services against the law enforcement requirements of our agency.” IRS CI pursues the most serious and flagrant violations of tax law, and it said it used the Venntel database in “significant money-laundering, cyber, drug and organized-crime cases.”
The episode demonstrates a growing law enforcement interest in reams of anonymized cellphone movement data collected by the marketing industry. Government entities can try to use the data to identify individuals—which in many cases isn’t difficult with such databases.
It also shows that data from the marketing industry can be used as an alternative to obtaining data from cellphone carriers, a process that requires a court order. Until 2018, prosecutors needed “reasonable grounds” to seek cell tower records from a carrier. In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court strengthened the requirement to show probable cause a crime has been committed before such data can be obtained from carriers….(More)”