It looks like the jokes about the government spying on us through our phones are no longer a laughing matter. According to internal Secret Service docs, the agency purchased location data generated by apps installed on peoples’ smartphones.
While specific apps are not named, weather predictors, games, and social media sites all collect location data, some of which will sell to data brokers or other companies who incorporate it into their own products.
The Secret Service purchased Locate X, a product manufactured by a company called Babel Street. In fact, the product is becoming quite popular amongst government agencies. According to an article published in March by tech publication, Protocol, multiple government agencies signed multi-million dollar deals with Babel Street to acquire the software, which tracks the location of devices anonymously using data gathered by popular apps installed on peoples’ phones.
The Secret Service’s contract with Locate X is dated from September 28, 2017, to September 27, 2018. An existing Secret Service and Babel Street contract appears to have been modified with the total amount increasing from $35,844 to $1,999,394.
“The purpose of this modification is to add 1 licenses [sic] to CLIN 0003 and incorporate the Master Subscription Agreement and Locate X Addendum as attached,” the contract document, which was obtained by Motherboard, reads.
The use of Locate X gives law enforcement agencies a shortcut in the way that they obtain location data, which usually requires a court-appointed warrant.
According to public records obtained by Protocol, another agency that was found to have purchased Locate X was U.S. Customs and Border Protection. A former Babel Street employee told the publication that the Secret Service also used the technology before documents were obtained to confirm it.
Senator Ron Wyden is currently attempting to block such location data purchases going forward.
“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 before adding, “It is clear that multiple federal agencies have turned to purchasing Americans’ data to buy their way around Americans’ Fourth Amendment Rights. I’m drafting legislation to close this loophole, and ensure the Fourth Amendment isn’t for sale.”
This location software is not the first of its kind. Back in February, The Wall Street Journal reported that ICE bought a different app-based location data product from a firm called Venntel. Senator Wyden’s office also revealed that the IRS also purchased the product from Venntel.
Other documents obtained as part of Motherboard’s request for records revealed that The Secret Service requested a tool that would allow it to monitor Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Vine, YouTube, WhatsApp, and several other social networking sites.
Babel Street nor The Secret Service have commented on the matter.