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Police use mass surveillance app to track without search warrants

by Mike Creef, Staff Writer
Police use mass surveillance app to track without search warrants
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Joint investigations by the Associated Press and Electronic Frontier Foundation found that cops are using a mass surveillance app called Fog Reveal to track locations of individuals without a search warrant.

A recent investigation by the Associated Press and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital privacy rights advocacy group, found that police have used “Fog Reveal” to search hundreds of billions of records from 250 million mobile devices, and used the data to create location analyses known as “patterns of life,” often times without a search warrant.

For as little as $7,500 per year, law enforcement agencies across the country can access a treasure trove of data points from over 250 million smartphones that are used to learn where an individual works, lives, and visits.

“We fill a gap for underfunded and understaffed departments,” Fog managing partner Matthew Broderick said in an email to the AP, adding that the company does not have access to people’s personal information, nor are search warrants required. The company refused to share information about how many police agencies it works with.

How Police Use Fog Reveal To Track Individuals’ Locations

The EFF filed more than 100 Freedom of Information Act requests over several months to learn that Fog Reveal has 18 past or ongoing contractual relationships with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.  

The company was developed by two former high-ranking Department of Homeland Security officials under former President George W. Bush. The mass surveillance relies on advertising identification numbers, which Fog officials say are culled from popular cellphone apps such as Waze, Starbucks and hundreds of others that target ads based on a person’s movements and interests, according to police emails. That information is then sold to companies like Fog Reveal.

Police use mass surveillance app to track without search warrants

(App tracking request for iOS users)

EFF was able to analyze Fog Reveal’s public-facing code to show how law enforcement agencies are able to track an individual’s movement.

Police use mass surveillance app to track without search warrants

First, law enforcement officials can draw a geofence anywhere in the country to reveal individual users in that area.

Apps that have been given permission to track activity create a heatmap of an individual’s location, and based on date and time law enforcement can trace out an individual’s path over time.

Police use mass surveillance app to track without search warrants

Legislation Introduced To Block Mass Surveillance From Data Companies

In March, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced a bill that would require public reporting and notice to individuals when government agencies use emails, location, and web browsing records and other digital information to track someone.

The Government Surveillance Transparency Act was introduced in the Senate in March, but has not gained any traction since its initial reading.

“When the government obtains someone’s emails or other digital information, users have a right to know,” Wyden said. “Our bill ensures that no investigation will be compromised, but makes sure the government can’t hide surveillance forever by misusing sealing and gag orders to prevent the American people from understanding the enormous scale of government surveillance, as well as ensuring that the targets eventually learn their personal information has been searched.”

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), said “For privacy to be adequately protected, our regulations must keep up with the pace of technology, and that hasn’t been the case regarding the notification of innocent Americans who have had their electronic data surveilled by the government. I’m proud to join a bipartisan group to ensure that Americans understand what their government is doing with their information and that their privacy is responsibly protected.”

What Data Surveillance Means For You

Data and mass surveillance by law enforcement agencies without an individual’s knowledge or a search warrant is something that everyone should be actively fighting against. 

At a time where members of the GOP are encouraging “bounty hunter” laws targeting those who help an individual seek an abortion in a state where it is legal, for now, law enforcement tracking movement will become scrutinized. 

The Black Wall Street Times encourages all its viewers to disable ad tracking on their cellphone and to disable location permissions to any app that you do not completely trust. 

You can reset or disable your phone’s ad ID by following the instructions here.

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