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Secret Service reportedly paid to access phone location data

The agency purchased Locate X, a product that uses data gathered by apps to track device locations, according to Motherboard.

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Abrar Al-Heeti
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Abrar Al-Heeti Video producer / CNET

Abrar Al-Heeti is a video producer for CNET, with an interest in internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. Before joining the video team, she was a writer for the culture team. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Abrar was named a Tech Media Trailblazer by the Consumer Technology Association in 2019, a winner of SPJ NorCal's Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2022 and has twice been a finalist in the LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.

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The Secret Service paid for a product that allows the agency to access phone location data, according to Motherboard.

Angela Lang/CNET

The Secret Service reportedly paid for a product called Locate X, which allows the agency to access location data from apps on people's phones. The agency was thus able to bypass measures like obtaining a warrant or court order to get that kind of information, according to a Monday report by Motherboard.

A March report in Protocol stated several government agencies had signed deals with Locate X creator Babel Street after it launched the product. Locate X anonymously tracks device locations using data gathered by apps on those phones, sources told the publication. US Customs and Border Protection reportedly purchased Locate X, and Motherboard says it's obtained a document that supports a Babel Street employee's claim that the Secret Service also used the technology. 

The Secret Service and Babel Street didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The Secret Service's contract mentioning Locate X ran from Sept. 28, 2017, to Sept. 27, 2018, according to Motherboard.

Several apps gather location data, often to help them run more smoothly, but many sell the information they collect to data brokers or to other companies that then use the information in their own products, Motherboard notes. The government is also sometimes involved in those sales. The Trump administration, for instance, has purchased phone location data from a company called Venntel and uses it for immigration and border enforcement, according to a February report by The Wall Street Journal. The Internal Revenue Service also reportedly purchased a database from Venntel that records millions of American cellphone locations.

While law enforcement agencies usually need a warrant or court order to get location data from a company, they can bypass that step by purchasing the data instead, Motherboard notes.