Back in March, evidence surfaced that governmental agencies including Customs and Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Secret Service were all utilizing Locate X, a clandestine software service offered by a company called Babel Street that collected unsuspecting citizens’ locations through their phones’ apps. Today, new government documents obtained by Motherboard via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request appear to confirm these allegations for the Secret Service, which the documents show did, indeed, purchased Locate X access.
"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," a document reads for a Secret Service contract with Babel Street lasting from September 28, 2017, to September 27, 2018. Prior to the Locate X subscription, the Secret Service department was already paying $35,844 to Babel Street for other products. The Locate X addition appears to have raised that number to $1,999,394.
A history of accessing search histories— This isn’t the first instance of a government agency purchasing troves of personal data from private companies, a transaction that provides a convenient workaround to citizens’ Fourth Amendment warrant rights. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal revealed that ICE, the Inland Revenue Service (IRS), and other agencies bought app-derived location data from a company called Venntel.
While politicians like Democratic Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon have been outspoken in their opposition to such tactics, purchases like the ones made by the Secret Service are currently completely legal, whether or not an individual is aware of it happening. Sen. Wyden and others are currently working to introduce legislation banning such means of information collection.
The Secret Service’s not-so-secret methods— Babel Street has a long history of illustrious political clients, ranging from the FBI to the United States Army. It also once counted convicted felon and former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, among its paid advisers in the past.
“The data used by Babel Street, said the former employees of Babel Street and Gravy Analytics, comes largely from third-party data aggregators who broker deals with mobile app developers, offering revenue in return and sometimes detailed analysis about how users are engaging with the app,” explained Protocol’s article in March. On top of Locate X, it appears the Secret Service also purchased a subscription to Babel Street’s open-source intel project to better monitor social network activity from platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube.
Neither Babel Street nor the Secret Service responded to requests for comment from Motherboard. Which is about as unsurprising as finding out definitely that federal agencies have been surreptitiously collecting data on U.S. citizens.