House Committee on Oversight and Reform launches investigation into Venntel

The Democratic-led House Committee on Oversight and Reform announced that it’s launched an investigation into the collection and sale of sensitive mobile phone location data revealing the movements of millions of Americans.

The investigation aims at Venntel, a Virginia-based data broker and software company that has contracts with the Department of Homeland Security, the criminal investigation division of the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other government entities.

Representative Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform; Committee Member Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA); and Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) are spearheading the investigation.

According to a letter sent to Venntel, the committee is seeking information related to the company's clients, where its data comes from, and how the anonymity of its users is being secured. It also requests a description of any COVID-19-related efforts Venntel is involved in. The committee has requested documentation delivery by July 8, 2020.

“We seek information about your company’s provision of consumer location data to federal government agencies for law enforcement purposes without a warrant and for any other purposes, including in connection with the response to the coronavirus crisis,” the Members stated in the letter.

“The vast majority of Americans carry cell phones with apps capable of collecting precise location information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This location-tracking raises serious privacy and security concerns,” the letter continued.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported that Venntel’s platform was used by the Department of Homeland Security to detect unlawful border crossings. The IRS also attempted to track criminal suspects with it, though the effort was unsuccessful.

At the time, Alan Butler, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said, “This is a classic situation where creeping commercial surveillance in the private sector is now bleeding directly over into government.”