In all the talk about TikTok collecting the data of Americans and sending it to the Chinese government, we’ve often overlooked the broader issue of data brokers collecting the data of Americans and sending it god-knows-where. Case in point: A newly released document shows the U.S. Secret Service went through a controversial social media surveillance company to purchase the location information on American’s movements, no warrant necessary.
Babel Street is a shadowy organization that offers a product called Locate X that is reportedly used to gather anonymized location data from a host of popular apps that users have unwittingly installed on their phones. When we say “unwittingly,” we mean that not everyone is aware that random innocuous apps are often bundling and anonymizing their data to be sold off to the highest bidder.
Back in March, Protocol reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had a contract to use Locate X and that sources inside the secretive company described the system’s capabilities as allowing a user “to draw a digital fence around an address or area, pinpoint mobile devices that were within that area, and see where else those devices have traveled, going back months.”
Protocol’s sources also said that the Secret Service had used the Locate X system in the course of investing a large credit card skimming operation. On Monday, Motherboard confirmed the investigation when it published an internal Secret Service document it acquired through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. (You can view the full document here.)
The document covers a relationship between Secret Service and Babel Street from September 28, 2017, to September 27, 2018. In the past, the Secret Service has reportedly used a seperate social media surveillance product from Babel Street, and the newly-released document totals fees paid after the addition of the Locate X license as $1,999,394.
Neither the Secret Service nor Babel Street immediately responded to Gizmodo’s request for comment. But Sen. Ron Wyden, and Oregon Democrat, told Motherboard in a statement that he has been unable to get Babel Street to tell him “where their data comes from, who they sell it to, and whether they respect mobile device opt-outs.” Wyden added that his previously announced privacy bill would bar federal agencies from purchasing this kind of data on the open market.
Based on Fourth Amendment protections, law enforcement typically has to get a warrant or court order to seek to obtain Americans’ location data. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that cops still need a warrant to gather cellphone location data from network providers. And while law enforcement can obtain a warrant for specific cases as it seeks to view location data from a specific region of interest at a specific time, the Locate X system saves government agencies the time of going through judicial review with a next-best-thing approach.
The data brokerage industry benefits from the confusion that the public has about what information is collected and shared by various private companies that are perfectly within their legal rights. You can debate whether it’s acceptable for private companies to sell this data to each other for the purpose of making profits. But when this kind of sale is made to the U.S. government, it’s hard to argue that these practices aren’t, at least, violating the spirit of our constitutional rights.