Secret Service Latest To Use Data Brokers To Dodge Warrant Requirements For Cell Site Location Data

from the it's-just-Supreme-Court-precedent dept

Another federal law enforcement agency has figured out a way to dodge warrant requirements for historical cell site location data. The Supreme Court’s Carpenter decision said these records were covered by the Fourth Amendment. But rather than comply with the ruling, agencies like the CBP and ICE are buying location data in bulk from private companies that collect this data, rather than approach service providers with warrants.

These agencies argue they aren’t violating the Constitution because the data is “pseudonymized” and doesn’t specifically target any single person. But even cops using “reverse” warrants are still using warrants to gather this data. Federal agencies apparently can’t be bothered with this nicety, preferring to collect information in bulk and work backwards to whatever it is they’re looking for.

The Secret Service is the latest federal agency to buy location data from Locate X — one of the companies already providing cell site location data to CBP and ICE. Joseph Cox has the details for Motherboard.

The Secret Service paid for a product that gives the agency access to location data generated by ordinary apps installed on peoples’ smartphones, an internal Secret Service document confirms.

The sale highlights the issue of law enforcement agencies buying information, and in particular location data, that they would ordinarily need a warrant or court order to obtain. This contract relates to the sale of Locate X, a product from a company called Babel Street.

Motherboard uncovered the Secret Service’s warrant evasion through a public records request.

The contract that mentions Locate X stretches from September 28, 2017 to September 27, 2018, according to the document. With the modifications to an existing Secret Service and Babel Street contract, the total amount increased by $35,844 to $1,999,394, the document adds.

This corroborates statements made by a former Babel Street employee, who told journalists at Protocol back in March that the Secret Service was also buying location data, along with CBP and ICE.

This location data isn’t pulled from cell towers. Perhaps this is why agencies feel comfortable ignoring the Carpenter decision. But while there won’t be as many data points, there will still be plenty of data to sift through. Multiple apps collect location data. Some of them sell this data to data brokers who then sell this to marketing firms and/or the US government.

Senator Ron Wyden is, of course, all over this.

“It is clear that multiple federal agencies have turned to purchasing Americans’ data to buy their way around Americans’ Fourth Amendment Rights. I’m drafting legislation to close this loophole, and ensure the Fourth Amendment isn’t for sale,” Wyden’s statement added.

If there’s a loophole, it will be exploited. And federal agencies are going to want this loophole kept open. Since it’s unlikely the government is informing courts about this use of data, there have been no courtroom challenges of this practice, leaving the feds free to operate in this precedent-free void. The government is reading the letter of the Supreme Court’s ruling, feeling the warrant requirement only applies to data collected from service providers. But other courts have read that ruling to cover more than what the justices specified. Federal agencies are playing to the edges of the Fourth Amendment right now and it might come back to hurt them.

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Comments on “Secret Service Latest To Use Data Brokers To Dodge Warrant Requirements For Cell Site Location Data”

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15 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

It's 'anonymous'... until it's not

If the data is anonymized, such that there’s no need for privacy concerns or fourth amendment protections, then it is also useless for pinpointing a suspect, as all that you’d be able to know is that someone was in a given area at a given time but not who, making it useless for investigating crimes.

The only way for such data to be at all useful is if it absolutely can be tied to individual people, which makes privacy and fourth amendment concerns very much real.

An agency, whether police or secret service who insists on bypassing warrant requirements like this are essentially admitting(though they’d never be honest enough to own it) that they are engaging in fishing expeditions, trawling through piles of data in the hopes that they can find something incriminating that they can then use evidence laundering to get a warrant for after the fact, as they currently don’t have enough to meet even the ever so slight requirements to get a warrant currently.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: What?

Obama perpetuated George W. Bush surveillance policies and extrapolated them into the mass NSA surveillance program that is still active today.

I don’t know what propaganda you’re digesting Anonymous Coward but I’m pretty sure you’ll find Biden’s pro-establishement governance plenty fascist for your taste.

Unless this is all about the length and color of his tie.

Anonymous Coward says:

Federal agencies are playing to the edges of the Fourth Amendment right now and it might come back to hurt them.

It may, but Federal agencies aren’t people: those abusing it right now likely won’t be hurt at all when this abuse is finally curtailed. Meanwhile, those being deprived of their Fourth Amendment rights are being deprived of them right now, and will likely never have reparations for the abuse they’ve been subjected to.

Anonymous Coward says:

On the other hand

Given the threats of missiles and nukes made by the Democrats, the Secret Service need all the help it can get to protect President Trump.

Given the threats of missiles and nukes made by the Democrats, the Secret Service need all the help it can get to protect Joe Biden and Democratic leaders from foreign intelligence operatives who would be quite likely to do "something" to prevent the Biden/Democrats from launching missile or nukes. Once missles/nukes start to be launched, there is no telling where the rest will go!

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