Security

US Secret Service Document Reveals Purchase of “Locate X”

Written by Bill Toulas
Last updated September 25, 2021

According to the details given in an internal Secret Service document, the American federal agency purchased “Locate X.” This is a product that can pull location data from common smartphone apps. It has previously been confirmed to be in the surveillance arsenal of multiple government agencies in the United States.

The creator of the software, Babel Street, claims that Locate X can anonymize the location data it harvests from apps, so people’s privacy isn’t compromised. Allegedly, the sole purpose of the product is in-depth analytics and not mass surveillance.

The US Secret Service is practically a law enforcement agency operating under the Department of Homeland Security. If they were to use Locate X as a pure data analytics tool, it could be for purposes of proactive crime and prediction-based policing.

We have already seen the various American states exploring algorithms and AI-based predictive policing systems, so this wouldn’t be a far-fetched scenario. However, many naturally assume that Locate X will be (ab)used for protest control, politically-driven arrests, and the furthering of a class-based racist-fueled discriminatory and unfair justice system. Some see these points as conspiracy theories, but they really aren’t.

In the documents obtained by Motherboard, the contract between Babel Street and the US Secret Service mentions a cost of $35,844 for Locate X. In addition to this, there’s another $1,999,394 that goes into social media data scraping. Considering previous stories about the FBI calling firms to submit proposals for social media monitoring and alerting tools, this second part doesn’t come as a surprise either.

But the main things to keep in mind here are the deployment of the Locate X tool and the fact that it can fetch your data even if you don’t have a social media account and think you are in full control of your data.

Locate X is collecting location data from a large number of weather apps, games, and even flashlight or bass-booster apps. If you were wondering why a flashlight app requests permission to access your device’s location data, the answer is that they’re making money from selling that data to companies like Babel Street. Then, Babel Street sells this data to law enforcement agencies who buy it using taxpayer money, so you’re basically funding your own surveillance in a sense.

Senator Ron Wyden, who has demonstrated sensitivity in these matters, says he has requested explanations from Babel Street multiple times in the recent past. Still, they repeatedly denied communication either via email or phone.

American laws - and the Fourth Amendment Rights, in particular - dictate that any law enforcement agency should secure a warrant if they want to access private citizen data. However, it seems that the agencies have found a way to override this requirement, and their collaborators are simply hiding behind vague statements about data anonymization while denying to provide any further explanations whatsoever.



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