KEY POINTS

  • The U.S. Secret Service has been reportedly purchasing location data since 2017
  • The agency allegedly do this through Locate X
  • Aside from the US Secret Service, other government agencies are reportedly using Locate X

The U.S. Secret Service has been buying location data gathered by various apps installed on smartphones, internal document showed. The federal law enforcement agency has been using a product called Locate X without authorization by any court order or warrant for three years.

The product, developed by Babel Street, has been used by other cross-border and government agencies as well, Vice reported, citing a Secret Service document it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. 

Other documents obtained by Vice through the FOIA showed that the Secret Service was also looking for a tool that would allow it to monitor social networks such as Instagram, Facebook, Vine, Tumblr, SnapChat, WhatsApp and other messaging apps.

Locate X gathers location data from games, weather, flashlights and many other apps anonymously and shared without the user’s knowledge or consent.

iOS Location Tracking iOS 11 will stop apps such as Uber and Waze from tracking customers at all times Pictured: Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iOS Software at Apple Inc., demonstrates turn-by-turn navigation in iOS6 using Siri during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference 2012 in San Francisco, June 11, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Stephen Lam

The agency started this practice on September 28, 2017. 

Senator Ron Wyden is currently working on legislation that intends to end purchases of products that harvest location data 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,” the senator said. “ I’m drafting legislation to close this loophole, and ensure the Fourth Amendment isn’t for sale,” he added. 

In a statement to Vice, Senator Wyden said that his office pressed Babel Street for answers. However, the company not only refused to answer the questions sent through email but would not let his office speak to an employee on the phone.

The Wall Street Journal reported last February that Immigration and Customs Enforecement (ICE) and several other agencies purchased an app-based location data product from a firm named Venntel.

On March 2020, Protocol reported that several government agencies entered into millions of dollars’ worth of contracts with Babel Street. The deals were reportedly made following the launch of Locate X. The product is allegedly capable of tracking devices’ location anonymously.

Vice also reported that some law enforcement agencies are paying just to gain access to data obtained by hacked websites. Neither Babel Street nor the U.S. Secret Service responded to Vice’s request for comments.