Secret Service bought access to cellphone location data


The US Secret Service (USSS) signed a contract to access Locate X, a service that lets law enforcement track phone users’ locations. Motherboard published apparent confirmation of the deal this morning, following a Protocol report in March. The contract indicates that the USSS paid Virginia company Babel Street around $36,000 to add Locate X to a $2 million social media monitoring package.

Protocol’s report describes Locate X as a powerful tracking tool that aggregates data from popular phone apps, then lets buyers track the location history of devices that were active at a specific time and place. It reported that the Secret Service, US Customs and Border Patrol, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have all used the product. The USSS contract that Motherboard published, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, runs from 2017 to 2018. One former employee previously told Protocol that the USSS had used Locate X to seize illegal credit card skimmers installed at gas pumps in 2018.

Products like Locate X typically rely on data brokers who offer access to large amounts of theoretically anonymous user data, officially intended for marketers or other non-government entities. (In practice, it’s often possible to identify individual users.) They let law enforcement agents bypass getting a warrant and requesting data from companies — a process that provides more accountability and privacy.

Lawmakers and civil liberties advocates have criticized this strategy. In June, the House of Representatives opened a probe into Venntel, a different tracking company that’s worked with the Department of Homeland Security. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) also recently announced a new bill, called The Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale, which would ban these purchases. Wyden told Motherboard that his office has asked Babel Street for more details about how Locate X works but that the company has not answered questions.