By Jon Dougherty
(TNS) As supporters of President Trump wait on Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham to hold people at the FBI and Justice Department accountable for lying to the FISA Court to fraudulently obtain a surveillance warrant to spy on the 2016 Trump campaign, now comes a report that federal law enforcement agencies won’t have to do that anymore.
And why? Because they’ve spent millions on a contract with a tech company in Virginia that has developed an app the Feds are secretly using to track cellphone movements and, thus, the movements of any individual they choose. No warrant necessary.
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As Protocol reports, the product is called “Locate X” and it was developed by a firm called Babel Street, which is based in Virginia. The app works by incorporating popular mobile apps in order to track movement of your cell phone, according to federal contracting records and a half-dozen people who are familiar with the software.
The website notes that the app allows federal 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.”
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.
And here’s the really good part — for the Feds anyway: The tool tracks the location of devices anonymously using data collected by popular cellphone apps such as mapping or targeted ads, or just to sell it on to data brokers.
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. — Protocol
Mind you, the FBI and the NSA have tracking tools of their own, but nevertheless, the fact that this tool was developed in secret means that it was never intended to see the light of day. So we really don’t know how many federal agencies are using it, and for what purpose (other than the obvious).
Then again, it certainly doesn’t appear to be a tool federal agencies want to employ against Joe and Jane America:
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. — Protocol
“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.”
Fair enough. The problem is, the tool may run afoul of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court, in the landmark caseÂ Carpenter v. United States, ruled in June 2018 that the government has to obtain a search warrant before agencies can access cell-tower location data for individual phone accounts.
The court “recognized that the government needs a warrant to get someone’s location data,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a long-time privacy advocate, 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.”
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But here’s the workaround: Federal agencies are ‘buying data’ from the companies that scoop it up, sorta, kinda legally, then filter it through the Locate X tool in order to monitor alleged criminal activity.
For example, last month,Â The Wall Street Journal reportedÂ that border and immigration agents tracking the location of cell phones and looking for activity in suspicious places near the border bought data fromÂ Venntel Inc.Â of Herndon, Virginia.
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