Ignoring warrants, the Secret Service has been buying up location data from phone companies

Vice's Motherboard reports that the US Secret Service paid for a product called Locate X that collects location data from tons of shady cell phone apps. It's the kind of information that you might not even realize you're giving away — that the app might not even tell you that it's collecting. It's also the kind of data that a government agency would otherwise need a warrant or court order to maintain.

In March, tech publication Protocol reported that multiple government agencies signed millions of dollars worth of deals with Babel Street after the company launched its Locate X product. Multiple sources told the site that Locate X tracks the location of devices anonymously, using data harvested by popular apps installed on peoples' phones.


The contract that mentions Locate X stretches from September 28, 2017 to September 27, 2018, according to the document. With the modifications to an existing Secret Service and Babel Street contract, the total amount increased by $35,844 to $1,999,394, the document adds.


Law enforcement agencies typically require a warrant or court order to compel a company to provide location data for an investigation. Many agencies have filed so-called reverse location warrants to ask Google to hand over information on what Android devices were in a particular area at a given time, for example. But an agency does not need to seek a warrant when it simply buys the data instead.

Both ICE and the IRS have previously tried to use privately purchased data to circumvent the warrant process and track people down through location services. Senator Rod Wyden (D-Oregon) is reportedly trying to pass a bill that would ban government agencies from contracting with data brokers, though I'm sure it'll end up mysteriously buried and killed by Mitch McConnell.

Here's where it gets really frustrating: you pay for a cellphone, and the service that accompanies it. But some of the apps you use secretly collect data on you — beyond what you know they're collecting, or what they say they're collecting — and then sell that data to make a profit. So your personal behavioral patterns are now someone else's financial gains. And how are they making that money? From government organizations that are funded in part by your own tax dollars, and who are technically supposed to adhere to the legal processes expected of all public services.

And now Motherboard has the receipts.


Secret Service Bought Phone Location Data from Apps, Contract Confirms [Joseph Cox / Motherboard]

Secret Service Paid to Get Americans' Location Data Without a Warrant, Documents Show [Rhett Jones / Gizmodo]

Sen. Ron Wyden is introducing a privacy bill that would ban government agencies from buying personal information from data brokers [Katie Canales / Business Insider]

Image: Public Domain via US Government Accountability Office