Through apps, not warrants, ‘Locate X’ allows federal law enforcement to track phones

Protocol – by Charles Levinson

U.S. law enforcement agencies signed millions of dollars worth of contracts with a Virginia company after it rolled out a powerful tool that uses data from popular mobile apps to track the movement of people’s cell phones, according to federal contracting records and six people familiar with the software. 

The product, called Locate X and sold by Babel Street, allows investigators to draw a digital fence around an address or area, pinpoint mobile devices that were within that area, and see where else those devices have traveled, going back months, the sources told Protocol.

They said the tool tracks the location of devices anonymously, using data that popular cell phone apps collect to enable features like mapping or targeted ads, or simply to sell it on to data brokers.

Babel Street has kept Locate X a secret, not mentioning it in public-facing marketing materials and stipulating in federal contracts that even the existence of the data is “confidential information.” Locate X must be “used for internal research purposes only,” according to terms of use distributed to agencies, and law enforcement authorities are forbidden from using the technology as evidence — or mentioning it at all — in legal proceedings.

Federal records show that U.S. Customs and Border Protection purchased Locate X, and the Secret Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also use the location-tracking technology, according to a former Babel Street employee. Numerous other government agencies have active contracts with Reston-based Babel Street, records show, but publicly available contract information does not specify whether other agencies besides CBP bought Locate X or other products and services offered by the company.

None of the federal agencies, including CBP, would confirm whether they used the location-tracking software when contacted by Protocol. Babel Street’s other products include an analytics tool it has widely marketed that sifts through streams of social media to “chart sentiment” about topics and brands.

A former government official familiar with Locate X provided an example of how it could be used, referring to the aftermath of a car bombing or kidnapping. Investigators could draw what is known as a geo-fence around the site, identify mobile devices that were in the vicinity in the days before the attack, and see where else those devices had traveled in the days, weeks or months leading up to the attack, or where they traveled afterward.

“If you see a device that a month ago was in Saudi Arabia, then you know maybe Saudis were involved,” this person said. “It’s a lead generator. You get a data point, and from there you use your other resources to figure out if it’s valid.”

A former Babel Street employee said the technology was deployed in a crackdown on credit card skimming, in which thieves install illegal card readers on gas station pumps, capturing customers’ card data to use or sell online. The Secret Service was the lead agency in those investigations, which, according to published reports, led to arrests and the seizure of devices.

A spokesperson for the Secret Service declined to comment on its work with Babel Street, saying the agency does not reveal methods used to carry out missions.

While federal records show that CBP purchased Locate X and last year upgraded, paying for “premium” licenses, the records neither describe what Locate X does nor define the difference between a basic and premium license. A CBP spokesperson would not comment in detail about the use of the tool, but said the agency follows the law when deploying “open-source information.”

Told of Protocol’s reporting on Babel Street, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who has pushed for tougher privacy legislation, questioned whether uses of the technology might violate the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches.

The Supreme Court, in the landmark case Carpenter v. United States, ruled in June 2018 that the government must obtain a search warrant to access cell-tower location data for individual phone accounts. The court “recognized that the government needs a warrant to get someone’s location data,” Wyden said. “Now the government is using its checkbook to try to get around Carpenter. Americans won’t stand for that kind of loophole when it comes to our Fourth Amendment rights.”

A spokesperson for Babel Street, Lacy Talton, declined to answer specific questions about the company’s government sales or its Locate X technology, but said the firm handles data carefully to comply with both the law and internet terms of service. There is no indication Babel Street is doing anything illegal.

Read the rest here: https://www.protocol.com/government-buying-location-data

4 thoughts on “Through apps, not warrants, ‘Locate X’ allows federal law enforcement to track phones

  1. Back to non-smart phones
    Or “burner “ phones
    No data
    Just cell service, and even that is compromised in today’s digital war against us

    1. There is no escaping “Big Brother” ! There exists technology that can identify individuals by their brainwave signature, like a fingerprint. This is part of what 5G is all about.
      “Abstract.With the embedding of EEG (electro-encephalography) sen-sors in wireless headsets and other consumer electronics, authenticating users based on their brainwave signals has become a realistic possibility.” http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~chuang/pubs/usec13.pdf
      “39MindID: Person Identification from Brain Waves through Att‚ention-based Recurrent Neural Network” https://arxiv.org/pdf/1711.06149.pdf
      Brain waves can be used to detect potentially harmful personal information https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/10/161003130904.htm
      Identity Recognition Using Biological Electroencephalogram Sensors https://www.hindawi.com/journals/js/2016/1831742/

      1. Well than
        I guess they won’t be able to track any politicians or heads of state
        As we all know their brain waves are a flat line

  2. Just another reason I refuse to have a cell phone (plus, we have no cell service at our house anyway).

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