Tech

Report: CBP, ICE, and the Secret Service track people using their app data

Babel Street's Locate X tool takes advantage of apps and flips off warrants to track unsuspecting people's movement.

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If you ever doubted the existence of commercial vendors selling your personal location data to government agencies, you might want to read Protocol's damning report on Locate X, a tracker owned by Babel Street.

The tool creates a geofence around cell users through location data mined by apps, and this extremely personal information is then used by its clients — which include the likes of the Customs and Border Protection, Secret Service, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Justice, United States Marshals Service, the Coast Guard, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, among others.

Now, if you're wondering why you haven't heard about this entire enterprise, that's because Babel Street has been successful at keeping Locate X off the public radar. That is, until Protocol rang the alarm bells.

A cloak-and-dagger project — Marketing material that targets public audiences aren't allowed to mention the tool as it is "confidential information." As Protocol reported, the terms of use for Locate X strongly states that it is "used for internal research purposes only." Furthermore, Babel Street warns that "Locate X data may not be used as the basis for any legal process in any country, including as the basis for a warrant or subpoena, or any other legal or administrative action."

With such an extreme adherence to secrecy, Locate X is sheltered and immune to any sort of public evaluation and risk assessment. Although a Babel Street representative told Protocol that Locate X does not violate the Fourth Amendment (which seems hard to believe) and that Babel Street apparently has an "ethos of proper data compliance," none of the federal agencies elaborated in transparent detail on their use of Locate X. The tool, it seems, operates without inspection or consequence.

Get a warrant — In the 2018 Carpenter v. United States case, the Supreme Court ruled that federal agencies need a warrant before they can mine individual cell location data. Locate X ditches warrants for apps to do just that. And while there is no clear proof at the moment that Locate X violates the Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable searches, Babel Street's extreme secrecy around the affair and the federal agencies' alarming track record of keeping tabs on people without consent makes it very, very hard to invest blind faith in the tool, its creators, and its users.