Attorneys for the Heritage Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on July 7, asking a federal judge to order the agency to turn over documents on the government’s use of Babel X software to track the smartphones and social media posts of millions of Americans.
The Heritage litigation stems from the conservative nonprofit foundation’s April 18 FOIA request to DHS for all agency documents in which appear the terms “Babel X,” “Babel,” “Babel Street” or “PanAmerica.”
Babel X is a controversial software program that allows users to monitor social media posts around the world in 200 languages, as well as listen to smartphone conversations in a specified geographic location.
The FOIA also requested copies of all DHS emails in which appears the term “@babelstreet.com” addressed to or from a lengthy list of agency officials, including Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, John D. Cohen, DHS’s acting undersecretary and chief intelligence officer, and 11 other individuals in the agency’s Intelligence & Analysis (I&A) operation.
Finally, the FOIA sought all communications “regarding the procurement, award, and implementation of the award to PANAMERICA COMPUTERS, INC. regarding award 70T02021F7554N002.”
The FOIA request was submitted, according to the complaint, because “Heritage understands DHS uses Babel X to monitor unknown entities, groups, and individuals in a manner similar to that of the FBI.” The FBI spent $5 million earlier this year to buy 5,000 user permits for Babel X from Panamerica Computers, with an option for further purchases up to $27 million.
The maker of Babel X claims, according to the Heritage suit, that the powerful scraping software is capable of multiple avenues of digital surveillance, including “persistent cross-lingual search and discovery across multiple data sources with advanced statistical and crowd-sourcing techniques,” deciphering “relevant insights across 200+ languages with state-of-the-art, linguistics technology,” performing “sentiment analysis in 50+ major world languages,” filtering “by a wide range of variables including keywords, hashtags, language, authors, emojis, dates/times, regular expression,” conducting “ad-hoc research for in-depth insight on entities,” analyzing “themes, entities, and categories as well as detect relationships,” and “integrating all available data on a single platform.”