Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is using an invasive, AI-powered monitoring tool to screen travelers, including U.S. citizens, refugees, and people seeking asylum, which can in some cases link their social media posts to their Social Security number and location data, according to an internal CBP document obtained by Motherboard.
The news provides much more detail on how CBP deploys a tool sold widely across the U.S. government. Called Babel X, the system lets a user input a piece of information about a target—their name, email address, or telephone number—and receive a bevy of data in return, according to the document. Results can include their social media posts, linked IP address, employment history, and unique advertising identifiers associated with their mobile phone. The monitoring can apply to U.S. persons, including citizens and permanent residents, as well as refugees and asylum seekers, according to the document.
“This document provides important new information, and it raises a number of questions about what specific purposes CBP is using social media monitoring for and how that monitoring is conducted in practice,” Patrick Toomey, deputy project director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Motherboard in an email after reviewing the document.
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Babel X, made by Babel Street, provides access to publicly and commercially available information in more than 200 languages across the public, “dark,” and “deep” webs, according to the company’s website, which adds that the tool is "AI-enabled." The CBP document says that some of the commercially available records “contain social security numbers compiled by private third parties.” Babel X is also able to perform “sentiment analysis,” according to the website. In November, Babel Street announced it would acquire Rosette, an AI-powered text analysis company that would help with “identity resolution” in the context of national security, verifying identities, and preventing financial crime.
Motherboard obtained the CBP document, called a Privacy Threshold Analysis (PTA), as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with CBP. Components of the DHS are required to complete a PTA when implementing or updating a program, and they expire every three years, according to the DHS’s website. If the project is particularly privacy-invading, it will also require a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA); the document says the Babel X use is covered by several PIAs. The end date for the Babel X project is listed as September this year, the document shows.
“Babel data will be used/captured/stored in support of CBP targeting, vetting, operations and analysis,” the document reads. Babel X will be used to “identify potential derogatory and confirmatory information” associated with travelers, persons of interest, and “persons seeking benefits.” The document then says results from Babel X will be stored in other CBP operated systems for 75 years.