AP

Senators push to reform police’s cellphone tracking tools

Sep 27, 2022, 4:07 AM | Updated: 4:17 am

FILE - Former police data analyst Davin Hall uses the Waze navigation app while driving through Gre...

FILE - Former police data analyst Davin Hall uses the Waze navigation app while driving through Greensboro, N.C., on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Hall quit the city's police force in part over its use of Fog Reveal, a powerful cellphone-tracking tool that the company says uses data from apps like Waze to track mobile devices. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed, File)

(AP Photo/Allen G. Breed, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Civil rights lawyers and Democratic senators are pushing for legislation that would limit U.S. law enforcement agencies’ ability to buy cellphone tracking tools to follow people’s whereabouts, including back years in time, and sometimes without a search warrant.

Concerns about police use of the tool known as “Fog Reveal” raised in an investigation by The Associated Press published earlier this month also surfaced in a Federal Trade Commission hearing three weeks ago. Police agencies have been using the platform to search hundreds of billions of records gathered from 250 million mobile devices, and hoover up people’s geolocation data to assemble so-called “patterns of life,” according to thousands of pages of records about the company.

Sold by Virginia-based Fog Data Science LLC, Fog Reveal has been used since at least 2018 in criminal investigations ranging from the murder of a nurse in Arkansas to tracing the movements of a potential participant in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. The tool is rarely, if ever, mentioned in court records, something that defense attorneys say makes it harder for them to properly defend their clients in cases in which the technology was used.

“Americans are increasingly aware that their privacy is evaporating before their eyes, and the real-world implications can be devastating. Today, companies we’ve all heard of as well as companies we’re completely unaware of are collecting troves of data about where we go, what we do, and who we are,” said Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Panelists and members of the public who took part in the FTC hearing also raised concerns about how data generated by popular apps is used for surveillance purposes, or “in some cases, being used to infer identity and cause direct harm to people in the real world, in the physical world and being repurposed for, as was mentioned earlier, law enforcement and national security purposes,” said Stacey Gray, a senior director for U.S. programs for the Future of Privacy Forum.

The FTC declined to comment specifically about Fog Reveal.

Matthew Broderick, a Fog managing partner, told AP that local law enforcement was at the front lines of trafficking and missing persons cases, but often fell behind in technology adoption.

“We fill a gap for underfunded and understaffed departments,” he said in an email, 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.

Fog Reveal was developed by two former high-ranking Department of Homeland Security officials under former President George W. Bush. It 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.

Federal oversight of companies like Fog is an evolving legal landscape. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission sued a data broker called Kochava that, like Fog, provides its clients with advertising IDs that authorities say can easily be used to find where a mobile device user lives, which violates rules the commission enforces. And a bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden that is now before Congress seeks to regulate the way government agencies can obtain data from data brokers and other private companies, at a time when privacy advocates worry location tracking could be put to other novel uses, such as keeping tabs on people who seek abortions in states where it is now illegal.

“It wasn’t long ago that it would take high-tech equipment or a dedicated group of agents to track a person’s movements around the clock. Now, it just takes a few thousand dollars and the willingness to get in bed with shady data brokers,” said Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. “It is an outrage that data brokers are selling detailed location data to law enforcement agencies around the country — including in states that have made personal reproductive health decisions into serious crimes.”

Because of the secrecy surrounding Fog, there are scant details about its use. Most law enforcement agencies won’t discuss it, raising concerns among privacy advocates that it violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

Advocates on both sides of the aisle should be concerned about unrestricted government use of Fog Reveal, said former Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who previously served as U.S. House Judiciary Chairman.

“Fog Reveal is easily de-anonymized tracking of Americans’ daily movements and location histories. Where we go can say a lot about who we are, who we associate with, and even what we believe or how we worship,” said Goodlatte, who now works as a senior policy advisor to the Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability. “The current political climate means that this technology could be used against people left, right and center. Everyone has a stake in curbing this technology.”

The New York Police Department used Fog Reveal at its Real Time Crime Center in 2018 and 2019, a previously undisclosed relationship confirmed by public records. A spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the NYPD used Fog on a trial basis, “strictly in the interest of developing leads for criminal investigations and lifesaving operations such as missing persons.” The department did not say if it was successful in either scenario.

Two nonprofits that have supported privacy rights cases in New York City said the tool exploited consumers’ personal data and was “ripe for abuse,” according to Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn.

“The lack of any meaningful regulation on the collection and sale of app data is both a consumer and privacy crisis,” Legal Aid Society Staff Attorney Benjamin Burger wrote in a recent post. “Both federal and state governments need to develop policies that will protect consumer data.”

___

Burke reported from San Francisco.

___

This story, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, is part of an ongoing Associated Press series, “Tracked,” that investigates the power and consequences of decisions driven by algorithms on people’s everyday lives.

___

Follow Garance Burke and Jason Dearen on Twitter at @garanceburke and @jhdearen. Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington. The U.S. Supreme Court has h...

Associated Press

Supreme Court decision on Trump’s election status could come Monday morning

A SCOTUS decision could come Monday in the case about whether Trump can be kicked off the ballot over his efforts to undo his 2020 defeat.

9 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley poses for a selfie after speakin...

Associated Press

Nikki Haley wins D.C. Republican primary, her first 2024 victory

Nikki Haley has won the Republican primary in the District of Columbia, notching her first victory of the 2024 campaign.

9 hours ago

An Apache group that has fought to protect land it considers sacred from a copper mining project in...

Associated Press

A US appeals court ruling could allow mine development in central Arizona on land sacred to Apaches

An Apache group that has fought to protect land from a copper mining project in central Arizona suffered a significant blow.

14 hours ago

On Friday, March 1, 2024, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said yogurt sold in the U.S. can ma...

Associated Press

Eating yogurt may reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, FDA says

Eating at least two cups of yogurt a week might reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said.

16 hours ago

Arizona will not approve new housing construction on the fast-growing edges of metro Phoenix that r...

Associated Press

Arizona Senate passes plan to manage rural groundwater, but final success is uncertain

A plan to manage rural groundwater passed the Arizona Senate amid concerns about the availability of sufficient water for future generations.

3 days ago

A woman pauses while shopping at a Kohl's store in Clifton, N.J., Jan. 26, 2024. On Thursday, Feb. ...

Associated Press

Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation gauge picked up last month in sign of still-elevated prices

An inflation gauge favored by the Federal Reserve increased in January, the latest sign that the slowdown in U.S. consumer price increases is occurring unevenly from month to month.

3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.

...

Canvas Annuity

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

Senators push to reform police’s cellphone tracking tools