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Cell Phone Tracking Tool Facilitates Mass Surveillance

friends smartphones calling june242020 min 1334018122

Local law enforcement officials across the country, from Southern California to rural parts of North Carolina, have been using an obscure tracking tool for cell phones, sometimes without warrants. The tool has reportedly been used in New Jersey as well, and it allows law enforcement to follow people’s movements from months in the past, according to public records and emails The Associated Press was able to obtain. 

Investigations are raising questions about the legality and ethics of the tracking tool, which is known as Fog Reveal. 

This comes at a time when people are increasingly worried about their privacy and the ability of technology to “see” into their personal lives. From data breaches where personal information finds its way to the dark web to the use of personal messages exchanged on social media, there are a lot of rapid changes going on as far as our personal privacy and what’s public record versus what’s not

This latest story just raises more questions. 

What Is Fog Reveal?

According to new reports, Fog Reveal is being used by police to search hundreds of billions of records from hundreds of millions of mobile devices. The data is being used to analyze locations and create what law enforcement calls “patterns of life.” This is according to thousands of pages of company records describing what it is they do. 

Fog Reveal is sold by Fog Data Science LLC, a Virginia-based company. 

The tool has been used at least since 2018 in criminal investigations.

It’s rare for the tool to be mentioned in court records, and defense attorneys say this makes it harder to defend their clients when the technology is used in their cases. 

Fog Reveal’s History

The company was created by two former members of the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. The technology relies on advertising ID numbers, and Fog officials say these are from popular cellphone apps that target their ads based on someone’s interests and movements. The information is sold to companies like Fog. 

Bennett Cyphers, an adviser at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy rights advocacy group, said it’s like mass surveillance on a budget. 

The emails leading to the recent investigation by media outlets were obtained by Electronic Frontier Foundation through Freedom of Information Act requests. 

The group then shared the files with The AP. The AP independently found out that Fog sold its software in around 40 contracts to almost two dozen agencies, according to GovSpend. GovSpend is a company tracking government spending. 

The records and the reporting from AP are the first public account of how extensive the use of Fog Reveal is by local police. 

The Evolution of Federal Oversight

The current legal landscape regarding companies like Fog is evolving. The Federal Trade Commission recently sued a data broker, Kochava, which provides clients with advertising IDs like Fog. Authorities say Kochava’s advertising IDs can be used to find where a mobile device user lives. This violates rules enforced by the commission. 

There are currently bills in Congress that, if passed, would also regulate the industry

A Fog managing partner said in an email that the company is filling in a gap for underfunded and understaffed departments because they’re often behind in their adoption of technology, and it impacts their ability to manage missing persons and trafficking cases. 

There’s a lot of secrecy surrounding Fog, and that means that we don’t know much about the details of how it’s used. Most law enforcement agencies also won’t discuss it, which would raise Fourth Amendment concerns among privacy advocates. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure. 

Local police agencies continue to use Fog with minimal public accountability. Police departments like being able to quickly access detailed location information. Geofence warrants, which use GPS and other device tracking sources, can be accessed by getting data from companies like Apple or Google. To do this, police are required to get a warrant and then ask tech companies for the particular data they want, which can end up taking days or weeks. With Fog, police can geofence an area or search by the particular ID numbers of a device. 

Privacy advocates are worried Fog’s location tracking could be put to other uses, including tracking people who are seeking abortions in states where it’s now illegal. 

Finally, the government’s use of location-based data is still being looked at by courts too. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled police need a warrant generally to look at records revealing where cellphone users have been. 

 

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