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.
The product, called Locate X and sold by Babel Street, allows 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, the sources told Protocol.
They said the tool tracks the location of devices anonymously, using data that popular cell phone apps collect to enable features like mapping or targeted ads, or simply 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.
None of the federal agencies, including CBP, would confirm whether they used the location-tracking software when contacted by Protocol. Babel Street’s other products include an analytics tool it has widely marketed that sifts through streams of social media to “chart sentiment” about topics and brands.
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.
“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.”
A former Babel Street employee said the technology was deployed in a crackdown on credit card skimming, in which thieves install illegal card readers on gas station pumps, capturing customers’ card data to use or sell online. The Secret Service was the lead agency in those investigations, which, according to published reports, led to arrests and the seizure of devices.