Location Sharing With Homeland Security | Crooked Media
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July 18, 2022
What A Day
Location Sharing With Homeland Security

In This Episode

  • Heat waves are devastating people in Europe and North America this summer. In the U.K. it’s hotter than the Sahara Desert, and in the U.S. 35 million Americans are currently living in places with excessive heat warnings this week.
  • The ACLU published “thousands of pages of previously unreleased records” on Monday about the government surreptitiously collecting people’s private information without a warrant. The report shows that the Department of Homeland Security — including border protection and ICE — buys access to data from hundreds of millions of phones.
  • And in headlines: a West Virginia judge blocked the enforcement of the state’s 150-year-old abortion ban, Uber settled a discrimination lawsuit, and Steve Bannon’s trial started.


Show Notes:



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Erin Ryan: It’s Tuesday, July 19th. I’m Erin Ryan.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice. And this is, What A Day, where we promise we will never have a beef that tears us apart like Desus and Mero.


Erin Ryan: I refuse to believe that those two are beefing. And I refuse to believe that you and I will ever beef.


Josie Duffy Rice: We will never beef. Beef is over.


Erin Ryan: Beef isn’t very climate conscious, is it?


Josie Duffy Rice: On today’s show, the ACLU reports that the federal government has been getting access to people’s phone data without warrants. Plus, Dr. Fauci announces that when Biden’s term ends, he’s finally going to retire.


Erin Ryan: But first, it’s hot. I can say that with a fair degree of authority. If you are listening to this podcast in either Europe or North America, it’s hotter wherever you are than it should be.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, it is not good news to hear that just like, multiple continents are just burning up. I don’t love it.


Erin Ryan: No, there’s no way to really spin it. You know that, like, little cartoon of the sun wearing sunglasses and he’s all chill, like, Yeah, everybody have a great summer. Like, the sun now is the Babadook face, but on the sun. There is nothing good happening from the heat source above us. So let’s start with the UK where it is literally hotter than the Sahara Desert. On Monday, temperatures topped over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and are likely going to rise even higher today, possibly breaking a record for hottest temperature ever in that country. The previous record was set only three years ago when the temperature hit 102 degrees Fahrenheit in Cambridge. This heat wave marks the first time ever that the UK has been under a red heat alert. It was so hot on Monday that one runway at London’s Luton airport literally melted. A airport runway melted.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s like a Salvador Dali painting, but it’s our lives.


Erin Ryan: Yes. And in Wales, they’ve already seen their highest temperatures ever on record this month. And in the Gironde region of southern France, about 35,000 acres have burned because of wildfires, forcing the evacuation of 31,000 people. Spain is also on fire. While firefighters have gotten control of fires in the southern Malaga region, wildfires continue to rage in the Castillo and Leon regions, as well as in the north. Portugal had already been suffering an extreme drought, and soaring temperatures have only made things worse. Overall, officials estimate that across southern Europe, over 1,100 people have died so far as a result of the inferno-like temperatures.


Josie Duffy Rice: 1,100 people, just in southern Europe, died.


Erin Ryan: From heat.


Josie Duffy Rice: From heat.


Erin Ryan: Right. The inside of a human body can’t get much hotter than 103 or 104 degrees without things shutting down.


Josie Duffy Rice: Right.


Erin Ryan: So when the air outside is hotter than the hottest temperature, the inside of a human body can be, that is really, really bad.


Josie Duffy Rice: Really bad. So is there like an end in sight perhaps, or . . . ?


Erin Ryan: So there’s a pause in sight, but maybe not an end. So temperatures are expected to peak this week, which means relief from this wave, which is great if you’re living underneath it. But troubling trends indicate that these temperatures may soon be the new norm, because–we have to say it–climate change is real. All ten of the UK’s hottest years on record have been since the year 2000. Temperatures around the world have been climbing for decades, and scientists have been warning us that this was on the way.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. And one thing that I think a lot of people don’t maybe know is that like in Europe and the U.K., most buildings don’t have air conditioning.


Erin Ryan: Exactly. So, you know, here in the U.S., you know, you live in a big city, in New York City, for example–they don’t have air conditioning units in a lot of places, but you can buy one, put it in, it’s normal. You can go down to the bodega. Your car has air conditioning. There are places all around you with AC. Europe is old, the infrastructure is old, and they never counted on temperatures being this hot. But even in parts of the world where air conditioning is more standard, like in the central U.S., things are dangerous right now. 35 million Americans are currently living in places with excessive heat warnings this week. We’re talking temperatures as high as 110 degrees from southern California to Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, the Dakotas, Arkansas, and places in between. The danger here is for people who have difficulty accessing air conditioning and people who work outdoors, like farm workers. Cities are also rough places to be as buildings spend all day absorbing heat from the sun and all night radiating the heat back out. It’s also a dangerous time to live in Texas, where the state’s rickety-ass power grid is about to be put to another test under life-threatening heat. This is yet another problem that people in power saw coming, but rather than fixing real problems facing Texans, Republican Governor Greg Abbott is trying to get into as many culture war slap fights as he can so he can campaign for president on Tucker Carlson show–sorry I’m getting off topic, but fuck that guy.


Josie Duffy Rice: Truly. Republican elected officials are spending all their time talking about the danger of trans kids so that they don’t actually have to do anything and govern, and can just govern through hate. So we know who to call when it turns out to be 130 degrees in this country.


Erin Ryan: Not them! Not them.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. No, just call to yell at them, not call to solve the problem.


Erin Ryan: Sure. Exactly.


Josie Duffy Rice: So are there any like heat wave tips you have for listeners?


Erin Ryan: So you should drink more water than you think you need to, if you’re living in a place that is really hot, even if you don’t feel thirsty. You should stay out of the direct sunlight. Wear a hat if you can’t avoid being in the sun. Avoid the upper floor of a building–heat rises, so basement good, penthouse bad, attic bad. Keep your windows closed and your curtains drawn and move around with fans. Learn to recognize the signs of heat, stroke and heat exhaustion in yourself and others, and keep an eye out. Ask people if they’re okay. Like there are people working outside and somebody looks like they’re not okay, ask them if they’re okay. Check for cooling locations in your area. A lot of cities have them and yours might be one of them. Check in on elderly or vulnerable neighbors. It’s much better to be safe than sorry in these cases. And make sure that kids and pets are able to keep cool and hydrated as well. So we have a stray cat that loves to walk through our yard just as part of his little daily rounds, and he likes to stop and drink water from a dish that is sometimes on our stairs. And I made sure that the water dish was filled. So if you have like strays that you feed, or anything like that, make sure that they have enough water to drink. And he did stop by recently, took a drink of water, and then peed in my front yard, so . . .


Josie Duffy Rice: He feels at home, he feels comfortable.


Erin Ryan: That’s a real thank you from that stray cat.


Josie Duffy Rice: Another reminder to also check in on unhoused people and make sure, because obviously it’s never great to be unhoused, but this is particularly terrible conditions for people who don’t have shelter. Okay, so, let’s turn to another big story to follow. Yesterday, the ACLU published, quote, “thousands of pages of previously unreleased records about the government surreptitiously collecting people’s private information without a warrant.” The material released by the ACLU shows the Department of Homeland Security, including Customs and Border Protection and ICE, quote, “buying access to and using huge volumes of people’s cell phone location information quietly extracted from smartphone apps.”


Erin Ryan: Oh, my gosh!


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.


Erin Ryan: Black Mirror is real.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s so real.


Erin Ryan: So what level of data collection are we talking about here? How many people and how many locations?


Josie Duffy Rice: Well, the truth is, Erin, that we don’t quite know just yet the actual total. We kind of only know it’s in these documents, which includes the data that was released to the ACLU after they filed their Freedom of Information Act request. But that alone is enough. So this data makes it clear that Homeland Security had access to data from hundreds of millions of phones. The ACLU got access to some of that data, which showed 336,000 location data points across North America collected by Customs and Border Protection or CBP. That means that the data didn’t only come from the U.S., but also from Canada and Mexico. And in just three days in 2018, CBP collected data for more than 113,000 locations from phones in just the southwestern U.S.–which Politico points out is equivalent to more than 26 data points per minute. They did all of that without obtaining a warrant. And again, that’s probably the very, very, very, very, very tip of the iceberg, right?


Erin Ryan: Oh, my goodness. That’s so much information. That is so much information that unless they have a way to index it and search it, that’s like a useless amount of information.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s useless until they have a question they need answered, and then it’s useful. So who was where when, you know.


Erin Ryan: Oh, my gosh.


Josie Duffy Rice: When you think about how this could be used, I think about the end of Roe. Like what government officials are searching, who’s at what abortion clinic or who is at a certain place that maybe correlates with their pregnancy status. Like, it’s just like so much data that it’s like, what’s the point, until there is a point?


Erin Ryan: Mm hmm. Yeah. So how did Homeland Security get this data, and did they directly pull that information from users phones or what?


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, it’s a really good question. How it usually works is this: people give apps on their phone permission to collect data, including location data. Often they don’t realize they’re granting that permission. Then surveillance companies/what the ACLU calls, quote, “shadowy data brokers” like Babel Street and VINTEL–those are the two mentioned in the documents released yesterday–they collect that information from the apps, and then those companies sell it to government agencies. So Homeland Security and probably other agencies, too, at some point, they’re using taxpayer dollars to buy private information about people without getting a warrant first. And again, this isn’t rare, right? I mean, according to the ACLU, one of these sketchy data companies, VINTEL, sent marketing materials to homeland security, quote, “explaining how the company collects more than 15 billion location points from over 250 million cell phones and other mobile devices every day.”


Erin Ryan: That’s too many location points. I’m just gonna–


Josie Duffy Rice: That’s so many location points.


Erin Ryan: –gonna go out on a limb here, and say it’s too many locations.


Josie Duffy Rice: I would not have guessed that we were collectively going 15 billion points a day. That just seems bananas to me.


Erin Ryan: That seems absolutely bananas.


Josie Duffy Rice: These marketing materials also boasted that with this data, law enforcement can, quote, “identify devices observed at places of interest” and, quote, “identify repeat visitors, frequented locations, pinpoint known associates, and discover a pattern of life.”


Erin Ryan: Okay, so, Josie, remember how I mentioned the stray cat earlier, right?


Josie Duffy Rice: Yes! Yes. Yes. Bring it back. Bring it back.


Erin Ryan: I’ve got a brainstorm solution to this, as Americans. We can fight this outside of the legal system by simply strapping our cell phones to stray cats, or adding a stray cat to our family plan.


Josie Duffy Rice: That is true.


Erin Ryan: Yeah.


Josie Duffy Rice: Find an animal. Tie your cell phone to that animal.


Erin Ryan: Feed the animal, nourish the animal, give the animal a place to sleep–but also, like, put that animal on your family plan to confuse the feds. No. I mean, all joking aside, is this legal? And if so, how?


Josie Duffy Rice: It kind of depends on who you ask, at least at this point. I mean, the ACLU would say, no, it’s not legal. My personal opinion is, no, it’s not legal. Obviously, these companies are justifying this somehow, right? And it seems that they’re basically like skirting the law on a technicality. So they justify it by saying that the data is associated with a phone’s, quote, “numerical identifier” instead of a name–of course, all you need to do is connect the name to the numerical identifier, and then there you go. And as the ACLU points out, quote, “The entire purpose of this data is to be able to identify and track people.” So the idea that, like “this data can’t be used to track” doesn’t make any sense. Also, the companies claim that the data is, quote, “100% opt in” but as we said earlier, most of us have no idea what data our apps are collecting and when, and even if we did, we didn’t expect to be handing over that data to the Department of Homeland Security. And this is important because four years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the government needs a warrant to access location history from a person’s cell phone, and they specifically said that that was because these records can give information about, quote, “privacies of life.” And yet, here’s Homeland Security, paying millions of dollars to have access to billions of those exact data points, no warrant in sight. So, like, if this is somehow technically legal, it just should not be. The Homeland Security employees themselves seem to recognize. In one internal briefing document at the department acknowledged that, quote, “The legal policy and privacy reviews have not always kept pace with the new and evolving technologies.” And at least one senior director is so concerned that VINTEL data never met the necessary privacy threshold assessment.


Erin Ryan: Wow. This is a really great example of how it is really important for our elected officials to be in a demographic that understands the technology that they should be regulating. And I think the average senator is 64.3 years old–and I know that because I just needed that stat earlier this week for something I wrote. I think we need fewer people in elected positions in the U.S. who need their email printed out, and more people who understand what technology is, what it does, and what it could be used for.


Josie Duffy Rice: I think that’s right. And I think the other thing is there’s a lot of money to be made in selling data, right? And there’s a lot less money to be made in regulating the selling of data or stopping the selling of data. And so, like, one thing to just remember is this is an industry. It recruits some of the smartest tech people in the world to make sure that, like you have no privacy, so that governments or other companies can exploit what they know about you. And like, it’s really hard to go back. This is concerning for so many reasons.


Erin Ryan: So this is just the latest in a series of concerning stories about companies collecting data and sharing it, often with law enforcement. We’re going to link some of these stories to you on our show notes so that you can read more, get concerned, and be convinced to look back to see what permissions you gave the apps on your phone. And that’s the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Erin Ryan: Let’s get to some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Erin Ryan: A West Virginia judge blocked the enforcement of the state’s 150-year old abortion ban yesterday. The 19th century ban couldn’t be enforced under Roe v. Wade, but the Supreme Court’s ruling last month made its enforcement a possibility again. The ban makes performing or receiving an abortion a felony that could result in up to a decade in prison. It provides an exception if a pregnant person’s life is at risk, but not for rape or incest. Thankfully, on Monday, a state judge agreed that this law is outdated, overly vague, and obsolete. In a lawsuit, West Virginia’s one and only abortion clinic had argued that its more recent laws guarantee abortion access in the state. Because of this win, that clinic can reopen its doors and resume procedures for now. The state’s Republican attorney general said his office will appeal the decision in West Virginia’s Supreme Court.


Josie Duffy Rice: The trial of the gunman in the 2018 Parkland School shooting began yesterday in Florida. The jury in the case is set to decide whether or not the shooter receives a death penalty or a life sentence without the possibility of parole, after he pleaded guilty to all the charges against him–worth noting that public support for the death penalty is at a half century low right now. Prosecutors gave opening statements yesterday focusing on the 17 lives that were lost in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. The trial will likely continue for months.


Erin Ryan: Uber agreed to settle a Justice Department lawsuit yesterday that accused the ride sharing company of discrimination against passengers with disabilities. Last year, the DOJ alleged Uber violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because the company charged those passengers wait time fees when they took longer than 2 minutes to get into the car, though, their mobility was limited. Under the terms of the over $2 million settlement, the ethically slippery ride share company will waive wait time fees for riders with disabilities. Uber also agreed to refund claimants twice the amount they were wrongfully charged–I’m just going to say a key takeaway is do not fuck with the ADA.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s true. And also another key takeaway, is it’s always good when Uber gets sued.


Erin Ryan: Total agreement.


Josie Duffy Rice: Jury selection began yesterday in the trial of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, and our best guess for what it would look like if the Life is Good guy had an Antichrist. Bannon was indicted on contempt of Congress charges last year for refusing to speak to the House January 6th Committee. He tried to delay his trial twice, going so far as to say he would talk to the committee to avoid litigation last week, but a judge rejected his request and gave prosecutors a go ahead to move forward with their case yesterday.


Erin Ryan: Wow. What a setback for President Andrew Jackson left to rot in a bog for ten days and reanimated. We love Bannon insults. We love them. Human bog. The man who has been our extremely gravelly voice of reason through large parts of the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said yesterday that he plans to retire soon–and after serving as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, it’s safe to say he’s earned it. Here’s Fauci on CNN talking about his plans:


[clip of Dr. Fauci] I don’t see myself being in this job to the point where I can’t do anything else after that.


Erin Ryan: Don’t go to grad school, Dr. Fauci. Don’t go to an additional grad school. Fauci didn’t confirm exactly when he’ll step down, but a spokesperson for the National Institute said that he doesn’t plan to stick around after 2025 when Biden finishes his current term.


Josie Duffy Rice: You know, I feel like if you became the head of the National Institute of Allergy, you would never expect for you to be the most controversial person in the country.


Erin Ryan: Yeah, it seems like a very uncontroversial position, but, you know, we’re living in unprecedented times.


Josie Duffy Rice: That’s true. Sensing that politicians are getting too much of the blame for failing to slow global warming, make-up queenpin Kylie Jenner recently jumped in to volunteer as tribute. She posted a picture this weekend with her boyfriend, Travis Scott in front of their two private jets, captioned, quote, “want to take mine or yours?” Ostentatious displays of wealth on Instagram are usually encouraged, but this one struck a nerve, particularly since private jets are such heavy polluters, burning 40 times as much carbon per passenger as commercial flights, according to some estimates. Things got worse for Kylie when members of Twitter’s self-appointed air traffic control board found records of her private jet traveling from Camarillo, California, to Van Nuys, California, earlier this month–those places are about 40 minutes apart by car, though Kylie made the trip in just 3 minutes. Okay, so she made the trip in 3 minutes, but she had to get to the airport, she had to board at the airport, there is no way she saved more than like, I’m going to say 7 to 10 minutes, maximum, best case scenario?


Erin Ryan: No. Totally. You know, when I lived in Chicago, my family is in the Minneapolis area, but they’re an hour and a half from Minneapolis. So, like, when I figured in door-to-door trip time, it was almost more sensible for me to drive in most cases.


Josie Duffy Rice: Of course!


Erin Ryan: Because it’s like, I have to drive to the airport, park my car, get to the terminal, get on to the plane, you know, all that stuff. The flight itself, landing, waiting to be picked up, all that–I don’t understand. There is no logic to this.


Josie Duffy Rice: None. None.


Erin Ryan: I don’t under–the super-rich have no sense of economy.


Josie Duffy Rice: I know. They have no common sense.


Erin Ryan: No. That’s why we should eat them.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. Honestly, Kylie. Sorry.


Erin Ryan: We’re eating you, Kylie.


Josie Duffy Rice: Eating you. It’s not personal.


Erin Ryan: No, no, no.


Josie Duffy Rice: But it’s really hot outside, and you’re part of the reason.


Erin Ryan: And those are the headlines.


Josie Duffy Rice: One more thing before we go: this week on Hot Take, Mary welcomes guest host and my former colleague, Ko Bragg, Scalawag’s Race and Place Editor. They’re joined by Amal Ahmed, a disaster reporter for Southerly to explore disaster relief, disaster theater, and the problems with the idea of resilience, especially focused on the South. This is going to be amazing. New episodes of Hot Take Drop each Friday. Listen, wherever you get your podcasts.


Erin Ryan: That’s all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, support the one true Life is Good, and tell your friends to listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you’re into reading, and not just a Jenner fight logs like me, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Erin Ryan: I’m Erin Ryan.


[together] And don’t get senioritis Dr. Fauci!


Erin Ryan: What is a doctor with senioritis do?


Josie Duffy Rice: Just showing up to work late, leaving early, drinking beers on the job.


Erin Ryan: Like, novelty scrubs.


Josie Duffy Rice: Novelty scrubs.


Erin Ryan: I’m going to miss his voice too. He’s so exasperated.


Josie Duffy Rice: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and executive producer is Leo Duran. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.