The FBI said it bought precise geolocation data derived from mobile-phone advertising before backing away from the practice amid legal issues and public controversy. The precise location of millions of mobile devices and automobiles is available for sale by commercial vendors, offering a nearly real-time look at how a phone or vehicle moves around the world. Several government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, have bought access to such commercial information such as the geolocation of phones without court authorization, which the FBI says it no longer does, reports the Wall Street Journal. Speaking to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray said his agency now seeks court orders when obtaining phone data from commercial vendors. “We do not currently purchase commercial database information that includes location data derived from internet advertising. I understand that we previously ... purchased some such information for a specific national-security pilot project. But that’s not been active for some time,” Wray said. Several years ago, a U.S. military branch called the Joint Special Operations Command created a program designed to take advantage of modern digital-advertising networks, aimed largely at tracking terrorists overseas. For a short time, the FBI participated in the military-led effort, testing the data’s usefulness in some domestic matters, including the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting and a 2018 missing-person case, before pulling out. The FBI also purchased a license to a commercial service called Venntel, which allows phone tracking through advertising data, before letting the contract lapse in 2021. Civil liberties groups and privacy activists have been sharply critical of such government purchases.
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