Government buying a shortcut around the Fourth Amendment
It’s no secret the federal government would prefer not to have to deal with that pesky Fourth Amendment, which requires the feds to get warrants before they can go poking around in our private lives.
Technology, and a dose of cash, has given Uncle Sam a workaround. The Tenth Amendment Center’s Mike Maharrey writes:
…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.
What is the IRS looking for in these private data streams:
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.
Such shortcuts around the Fourth Amendment feel as unconstitutional as they do profoundly authoritarian. Then again, government has long bridled at the idea is powers to snoop, pry, and police have any limits at all.