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IRS tried (unsuccessfully) to use smartphone location data to find tax criminals

After a year of paying to obtain location data, the IRS canceled its partnership due to a lack of success.

Published onJune 19, 2020

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  • A new report details how the IRS bought mountains of anonymized smartphone data with the intention of using it to catch criminals.
  • However, the IRS location data investigations proved fruitless and the organization ceased the practice.
  • This likely won’t be the last time, though, that the IRS (or other government organizations) uses phone data to try to catch criminals.

According to a new report from The Wall Street Journal, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tried to use smartphone location data to nab tax criminals. The IRS location data methodology, though, proved ineffective.

The report describes how the IRS allegedly paid a third-party data firm for mountains of United States citizens’ location data. The intention was to use that data to catch people who have committed tax crimes. However, after a year of paying to obtain the data, the IRS did not renew its contract with the service since it hadn’t caught a single criminal through the data access.

IRS location data monitoring? Is this legal?

What the IRS was trying to do is actually legal. The location data purchased is all anonymized and mostly intended for advertisers and other businesses to give them a better idea for demographics. The IRS location data methodology of catching criminals, though, was to use that data and attempt to pinpoint specific users by matching datasets together.

This is very different from what we’ve seen police agencies do in the past. In several high-profile exposé reports, it was determined that detectives were using cell tower data purchased from companies that had direct partnerships with carriers. Cell tower data is much more specific than this anonymized IRS location data, which is why privacy advocates were in a firestorm over the news.

Related: Smartphone location tracking is creepier than you thought

However, courts are still undecided on how criminal investigations using big data sets should be regulated. For example, the police need to obtain a warrant before getting your specific cell tower connection history. Anonymized datasets such as these, though, are still mostly unregulated.

Regardless, this failed IRS location data method of criminal investigation is a new representation of the trend of law enforcement using big data to catch criminals. Even though this particular instance was fruitless, it wouldn’t surprise us if the IRS continues to find ways to use data in its criminal investigations.

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