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Secret Service paid for location data from phone apps

The US government is facing more accusations of buying location data to track people down without the usual warrants.

Published onAugust 17, 2020

  • The US Secret Service bought phone location data harvested through everyday apps.
  • Babel Street reportedly sold the data through a Locate X product.
  • Senator Ron Wyden is planning a bill to block purchases like this on Fourth Amendment grounds.

The US government is facing more accusations of buying location data to track people down without the usual warrants and court orders. Motherboard has learned through a Freedom of Information Act request that the Secret Service paid Babel Street to use Locate X, a secretive product that supplies location data from common phone apps.

While it wasn’t clear from a document just what the Secret Service used the tool for, Protocol noted that it’s used to create a virtual fence around an area and track where devices in that region had been before. If a phone near a terrorist incident was in a country linked to the attack weeks earlier, for instance, that could produce a lead for a case.

The contract for Locate X lasted between September 2017 and September 2018, and ballooned to nearly $2 million. It was likely aimed at solving no more than a handful of cases, and possibly just one.

Read more: NSA says phone location data poses a national security risk

It’s not certain where Babel Street obtains its data, who it’s sold to, and whether it honors opt-out requests in apps. Babel has declined to comment, even to Senator Ron Wyden when he pressed the company for answers. The Secret Service hasn’t responded to Motherboard‘s request for comment.

The outcry over location data sales has grown louder in recent years, particularly when word broke that US carriers were selling location data that ultimately wound up in the hands of bounty hunters and others who weren’t expected to have it. The carriers have since halted those practices, but the Secret Service usage reflects a similar problem: government and law enforcement officials have been buying data to get location info they would normally need court approval to obtain.

That might change. Senator Wyden is promising a bill that would ban these purchases and force officials to obtain warrants and orders. For now, though, there’s not much you can do to avoid t these practices besides limiting location sharing in the apps you use.

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