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US Law Enforcement Agencies Employ Obscure Phone Tech to Track People Movements

 

Multiple law enforcement agencies in Southern California and North Carolina are employing a powerful but relatively inexpensive cellphone tool dubbed ‘Fog reveal’ to track individual devices without a warrant based on data collected from apps installed on citizens’ smartphones. 

According to a detailed report published by the Associated Press based on documents extracted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the tool provided US police the ability to scan billions of records from 250 million mobile devices and harness the ensuing data to create “patterns of life” for each individual, which also included homes and workplaces locations. 

Fog Reveal was designed by Virginia-based Fog Data Science and is reportedly used extensively by law enforcement agencies in the US to solve criminal cases. 

According to AP, the surveillance software collected the data in a searchable way and designed software able to sift through it in a sophisticated way. Subsequently, the app makers sold the software in about 40 contracts to nearly 20 agencies, with prices starting at $7,500 a year. 

The technology is controversial as US courts are still weighing the use of location data, and the latest such ruling from the US Supreme Court held that law enforcement agencies would require a warrant in most cases, to access records of users’ movements and location. 

Additionally, mobile geolocation data of individuals should only be requested from Google (Android devices) or Apple (iPhones and iPads) by police forces in possession of a warrant released by a court.

The Virginia-based firm defended this claim by arguing that its data is anonymized, with the company not having any way of linking signals back to a specific device or owner. At the same time, some of the documents obtained by AP suggest police forces may be able to deanonymize the data to identify and locate specific individuals. 

The AP investigation primarily relied on public records (including GovSpend and Freedom of Information Act requests) and internal emails extracted by the local news outlet. The report comes days after the US military and intelligence agencies revealed a new monitoring operation to guard electoral procedures from hacking and fake news before and during the November midterms elections.