The Secret Service paid for a product that gives the agency access to location data generated by ordinary apps installed on peoples’ smartphones, an internal Secret Service document confirms.
The sale highlights the issue of law enforcement agencies buying information, and in particular location data, that they would ordinarily need a warrant or court order to obtain. This contract relates to the sale of Locate X, a product from a company called Babel Street.
In March, tech publication Protocol reported that multiple government agencies signed millions of dollars worth of deals with Babel Street after the company launched its Locate X product. Multiple sources told the site that Locate X tracks the location of devices anonymously, using data harvested by popular apps installed on peoples’ phones.
Protocol found public records showed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) purchased Locate X. One former Babel Street employee told the publication that the Secret Service used the technology. Now, the document obtained by Motherboard corroborates that finding.
“As part of my investigation into the sale of Americans’ private data, my office has pressed Babel Street for answers about where their data comes from, who they sell it to, and whether they respect mobile device opt-outs. Not only has Babel Street refused to answer questions over email, they won’t even put an employee on the phone,” Senator Ron Wyden told Motherboard in a statement.
Government agencies are increasingly at the end of that location data chain. In February The Wall Street Journal reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other agencies bought an app-based location data product from a different firm called Venntel. Senator Wyden’s office then found the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was also a Venntel customer.
Law enforcement agencies typically require a warrant or court order to compel a company to provide location data for an investigation. Many agencies have filed so-called reverse location warrants to ask Google to hand over information on what Android devices were in a particular area at a given time, for example. But an agency does not need to seek a warrant when it simply buys the data instead.
Senator Wyden is planning legislation that would block such purchases.
We should also forbid our intelligence agencies from having allies collect data that they are forbidden to collect, and the reverse for them.
The whole “Five Eyes” thing appears to be a way to allow intelligence agencies to spy on their own citizens by swapping who is looking at any given time.