The feds are buying access to private data collection companies as a way to gather information on people without a warrant.
According to a report by The Intercept, the U.S. Treasury Department bought two data feeds from a company called Babel Street. Tech Inquiry obtained the information through a FOIA request and shared it with The Intercept.
The Treasury Department’s sanctions enforcement branch will use one of the data feeds, and the IRS will have access to the second. According to The Intercept, “both feeds enable government use of sensitive data collected by private corporations not subject to due process restrictions.”
Through Bable Street, the Treasury Department will reportedly have access to sensitive location data and other information harvested from smartphone apps.
It’s almost certain other federal agencies use a similar strategy.
The first contract was executed in July 2021 by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. This agency enforces U.S. economic sanctions. Documents obtained by The Intercept reveal OFAC investigators can use a Babel Street tool called Locate X to track the movements of individuals without a search warrant. It will facilitate the “analysis of cellphone ad-tech data … to research malign activity and identify malign actors, conduct network exploitation, examine corporate structures, and determine beneficial ownership,”
Locate X collects geolocational data pulled from mobile phone apps. While the information is anonymized, according to The Intercept, “researchers have found time and time again that deanonymizing precise historical location data is trivial.” A company source told Motherboard “we could absolutely deanonymize a person” and the company admitted that employees “play with it, to be honest.”
The IRS contract was finalized on Sept. 30, 2021. Babel Street will provide the agency with software that “captures information from public-facing digital media records.” In other words, Babel Street will scrape social media sites and send information to the IRS in order to catch “tax-dodgers.”
A 2017 Motherboard report on Babel Street revealed that the company offers clients “access to over 25 social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram, and to Twitter’s firehose. … Babel Street’s filtering options are extremely precise, and allow for the user to screen for dates, times, data type, language, and—interestingly enough—sentiment.”
Babel Street’s capabilities go beyond scanning social media posts. In its initial request for a contract, IRS asked for significant services, including the collection of “available bio-metric data, such as photos, current address, or changes to marital status” for people targeted by the agency, and the ability to “provide publicly available information of taxpayers’ past or present locations,” as well as “reports showing that a taxpayer participated in an online chat room, blog, or forum, and reports showing the chat room or blog conversation threads.”
These tools effectively provide the government a pathway to avoid Fourth Amendment warrant requirements. Even the Supreme Court has held government agencies need a warrant to track cell phone location data (Carpenter v. United States). Under these agreements, the government has Babel do the dirty work of legally collecting the data and then accesses it without a warrant.
“It is clear that multiple federal agencies have turned to purchasing Americans’ data to buy their way around Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told The Intercept.
This is yet another example of the growing federal surveillance states and the government’s complete disregard of limits on its actions.
State action can help limit federal spying.
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