WASHINGTON—The Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog said it would open an investigation into the use of mobile-phone surveillance technologies to track Americans without a warrant, the latest salvo in a debate within the U.S. government over the legality of such techniques.
The department’s inspector general told five Democratic senators that his office would initiate an audit “to determine if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its components have developed, updated, and adhered to policies related to cell-phone surveillance devices,” according to a letter sent last week to Capitol Hill and shared with The Wall Street Journal.
The letter came in response to a request in October from Sens. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), Ed Markey (D., Mass.) and Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) to probe whether the purchase of commercial cellphone data on Americans for law-enforcement purposes was lawful.
“DHS always has and will continue to cooperate fully with OIG [Office of Inspector General] investigations,” a spokesman for the department told The Wall Street Journal.
The Journal reported earlier this year that several agencies within DHS were buying access to a product made by a commercial broker, a company called Venntel Inc., of Herndon, Va., that contained location information on millions of U.S. mobile devices, drawn from games, weather apps and other common mobile applications. The department also buys software from Babel Street, another vendor that sells location-data products, according to public records. Venntel and Babel Street didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.