The DEA Abruptly Cut Off Its App Location Data Contract

The DEA cancelled its contract with Venntel, which obtains granular location data from ordinary apps and sells access to law enforcement agencies.
December 7, 2020, 2:00pm
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Image: Eric Kayne/Getty Images

The Drug Enforcement Administration abruptly cancelled its contract with Venntel, a U.S. contractor that sells location data harvested from ordinary apps installed on people’s phones around the world.

The news signals that although Venntel's smartphone location data may be popular with some federal agencies, including Customs and Border Protection (CBP) which Motherboard found spent nearly half a million dollars to access the data, other law enforcement bodies may have less use for such technology.

Are you a Venntel user? Do you work at Venntel, Babel Street, or other company providing location data to the government? Did you used to? Do you know anything else about the sale of location data? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

In April 2018, the DEA paid Venntel $25,000 for a "software license," according to public procurement records. Venntel sells law enforcement agencies access to a panel where users can view the location of smartphones over time. As Motherboard and Norwegian media organization NRK reported last week, that data is sourced through a complex web of middlemen companies, advertising firms, and, ultimately, apps such as "Fu*** Weather," a weather app with more than one million downloads according to its Google Play Store page.

But the DEA seemingly didn't see the Venntel product as right for them. Keith Chu, communications director for the office of Senator Ron Wyden, described to Motherboard a conversation that his office had with the DEA.

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"On DEA, they told our office: '[The Venntel contract was] terminated on our end before the first 30 days of the one year period of performance after determining it would not fit our needs,'" Chu said.

The DEA did not respond to multiple requests to elaborate on why it cancelled the Venntel contract. One former Venntel worker previously told Motherboard that "you could definitely try and identify specific people." But a second person who worked with the company previously said that it was more useful for tracking "herds of people."

The IRS ran into this issue when it used Venntel to try and identify and track specific criminal suspects. The IRS' attempts did not work because the people the agency wanted to track were not included in the particular Venntel dataset, likely because they didn't happen to use certain apps, an aide to Wyden previously told Motherboard. The body tasked with oversight of the IRS is currently investigating the agency for using Venntel's product without a warrant.

But other agencies, with seemingly a focus more on groups of people or particular areas, have successfully used Venntel's tool to track down and arrest individuals. In February The Wall Street Journal reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has used the data to pinpoint immigrants who were later arrested, and CBP has used the capability to identify cell phone activity in remote sections of the U.S.-Mexico border. Both agencies have purchased Venntel products multiple times, according to public procurement records.