THE TREASURY DEPARTMENT has in recent months expanded its digital surveillance powers, contracts provided to The Intercept reveal, turning to the controversial firm Babel Street, whose critics say it helps federal investigators buy their way around the Fourth Amendment.
Two contracts obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request and shared with The Intercept by Tech Inquiry, a research and advocacy group, show that over the past four months, the Treasury acquired two powerful new data feeds from Babel Street: one for its sanctions enforcement branch, and one for the Internal Revenue Service. Both feeds enable government use of sensitive data collected by private corporations not subject to due process restrictions. Critics were particularly alarmed that the Treasury acquired access to location and other data harvested from smartphone apps; users are often unaware of how widely apps share such information.
The first contract, dated July 15 at a cost of $154,982, is with Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, a quasi-intelligence wing responsible for enforcing economic sanctions against foreign regimes like Iran, Cuba, and Russia. A June report from New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice found that OFAC’s vast enforcement powers require greater oversight from Congress. The report criticized the lack of legal limits on who OFAC can sanction, pointing out that this group includes American citizens within U.S. borders and foreigners without any government ties, and flagged the fact that OFAC is free to add people to sanctions lists even after sanctions are authorized—people now potentially subject to surveillance by Locate X.
According to contract documents, OFAC investigators can now use a Babel Street tool called Locate X to track the movements of individuals without a search warrant. Locate X provides clients with geolocational data gleaned from mobile apps, which often relay your coordinates to untold third parties via advertisements or pre-packaged code embedded to give the app social networking features or study statistics about users. This commercial location data exists largely in a regulatory vacuum, acquired by countless apps and bought, sold, and swapped between an incredibly vast and ever-growing ecosystem of ad tech firms and data brokers around the world, eventually landing in the possession of Babel Street, who then sells search access to government clients like OFAC….