Tech tool offers police low-budget ‘mass surveillance'
From suburban Southern California to rural North Carolina, law enforcement agencies have been employing an obscure cellphone tracking program, often without search warrants.
Public records and internal emails obtained by the Associated Press revealed that law enforcement agencies ranging from suburban Southern California to rural North Carolina have been using an obscure cellphone tracking tool, sometimes without search warrants, that allows them to track people's movements months in advance.
Thousands of pages of corporate records stated that the police have used Fog Reveal to search hundreds of billions of records from 250 million mobile devices, and leveraged the data to generate location analyses known among law enforcement as "patterns of life."
Fog Reveal, sold by Virginia-based Fog Data Science LLC, has been used in criminal investigations ranging from the murder of an Arkansas nurse to following the activities of a probable participant in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurgency. The instrument is rarely, if ever, mentioned in court records, making it difficult for defense counsel to defend their clients in cases where the technology was used.
Fog tracking software
Two former high-ranking Department of Homeland Security officials under former President George W. Bush founded the company. According to police emails, it depends on advertising identification numbers obtained from popular mobile apps such as Waze, Starbucks, and hundreds of others that target adverts based on a person's actions and interests.
This data is subsequently sold to firms like Fog. “It’s sort of a mass surveillance program on a budget,” said Bennett Cyphers, a special advisor at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy rights advocacy group.
EFF got the records and emails through Freedom of Information Act requests. According to GovSpend, a company that tracks government spending, the organization shared the files with the Associated Press, which separately discovered that Fog sold its software in approximately 40 contracts to almost two dozen agencies.
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Researchers and legal specialists who study such technologies revealed the records and AP's investigation constitute the first public account of the widespread use of Fog Reveal by local police.
“Local law enforcement is at the front lines of trafficking and missing person cases, yet these departments are often behind in technology adoption,” Matthew Broderick, a Fog managing partner, said in an email. “We fill a gap for underfunded and understaffed departments.”
However, because of the secrecy surrounding Fog, there are few details about its use, and most law enforcement agencies are refusing to discuss it, raising concerns among privacy advocates that it violates the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.
Advertising ID tracker
Fog Reveal differs from previous cellphone location technology employed by authorities in that it tracks the devices using their advertising IDs and unique identifiers provided to each device. These numbers do not contain the phone's owner's name, but they can be traced to residences and businesses to assist authorities in conducting pattern-of-life analyses.
“The capability that it had for bringing up just anybody in an area whether they were in public or at home seemed to me to be a very clear violation of the Fourth Amendment,” said Davin Hall, a former crime data analysis supervisor for the Greensboro, North Carolina Police Department. “I just feel angry and betrayed and lied to.”
Hall resigned in late 2020 after months of raising concerns with police attorneys and the city council over the department's use of Fog.
While Greensboro officials first justified Fog's use, the police department claimed it let its subscription lapse earlier this year because it didn't "independently benefit investigations."
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However, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies throughout the United States continue to utilize Fog with little public accountability. Local police departments have been lured by Fog's low cost: it can start as low as $7,500 per year. According to the emails, some departments who license it share it with other adjacent law enforcement agencies.
In an email, Fog's Broderick stated that the firm does not have access to people's personal information and instead uses "commercially available data without restrictions to use" from data brokers who "legitimately acquire data from apps in compliance with their legal agreements." The corporation refused to reveal how many police departments it works with.
“We are confident Law Enforcement has the responsible leadership, constraints, and political guidance at the municipal, state, and federal level to ensure that any law enforcement tool and method is appropriately used by the laws in their respective jurisdictions,” Broderick said.
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