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Secret Service bought location data pulled from common apps

Normally, law enforcement would need a warrant or court order to access that data.
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Christine Fisher
Christine Fisher|@cfisherwrites|August 17, 2020 12:55 PM

The Secret Service paid a private company for access to location data generated by common smartphone apps, Motherboard reports. Internal documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that the agency spent $35,844 for a one-year subscription to Babel Street’s product Locate X, which tracks the location of devices via data harvested from popular apps.

As Motherboard notes, the glaring issue with this contract is that it allows the law enforcement agency to buy information that it would normally need a warrant or a court order to obtain.

With Locate X, an agency like the Secret Service could, for instance, create a geo-fence around a crime scene. It could then identify mobile devices that were in that area prior to the crime and see where those devices traveled before or after the incident. Police took that approach following a burglary in 2019, and they ended up investigating an innocent cyclist based on his RunKeeper data.

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In March, Protocol reported that US Customs and Border Protection purchased Locate X, and a former Babel Street employee told Protocol that the Secret Service and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were using the location-tracking tech. But Motherboard has the first confirmation that the Secret Service did in fact purchase Locate X. 

This isn’t a new issue. Federal agents have reportedly been buying commercially-available cell phone location data to track immigrants for years. A recent report on Black Lives Matter protestors released by Mobilewalla shows just how much info private companies can glean from smartphone apps.

It’s unclear how federal agencies get away with obtaining this info without a warrant. In 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement need a warrant to perform cell phone tower searches. But why bother when you have app data?

Senator Ron Wyden is reportedly planning legislation to block law enforcement from purchasing products like Locate X.

“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,” Wyden said in a statement provided to Motherboard.

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Secret Service bought location data pulled from common apps