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Heritage Foundation sues DHS for documents on social media monitoring efforts

The intelligence program Babel X retrieves and copies information from billions of people worldwide

Published: July 7, 2022 6:56pm

Updated: July 7, 2022 8:02pm

The Heritage Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit on Thursday against the Department of Homeland Security in order to obtain records about the federal agency's surveillance of Americans through social media.

The conservative non-profit think tank originally filed a FOIA request in April for all DHS documents related to the intelligence program, Babel X, which retrieves and copies "data from both online sources and from 'apps' running on smartphones and other devices of billions of individuals worldwide," the Heritage Foundation wrote in its lawsuit.

Mike Howell, a former DHS attorney who now works as a senior advisor for government relations at Heritage, is also a plaintiff on the lawsuit. 

Heritage notes that "limited information is available regarding" the intelligence product, but its company website states that the program "enables teams to derive relevant insights by canvassing the world of publically available and commercially available information across more than 200 languages and then filtering by a wide range of analytical lenses."

The FOIA request included all communications from January 21, 2021, President Joe Biden's first day in office, to March 31, 2021, with terms related to Babel. Another part of the request included emails between Biden DHS officials and people at Babel. The third request sought information about Panamerica Computers, which provided the department with licenses for the software.

In mid-June, DHS asked the group to narrow its search because the results came back at 2.1 GB, a sizeable computer file. The same day, the Heritage Foundation replied asking for all of the records. 

DHS violated FOIA and agency regulations by not conducting searches for the records, the non-profit wrote in the lawsuit.

Federal law enforcement appears to use the product widely. For example, the FBI received 5,000 licenses for the program, as stated in the lawsuit.

In 2019, the Justice Department gave Babel's parent company "a $5 million contract with an option for up to $27 million for Babel X licenses," the case states.

The FBI contract specifically "drew substantial concern from privacy advocates who fear the Babel X tool will be used for suspicionless monitoring of individuals who are disfavored by the current Administration or will result in the government taking action on the incomplete and ultimately inaccurate information derived from social media," Heritage foundation stated. 

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