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.


              FILE - A man is silhouetted against a wall as he looks down at his cellphone outside the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Los Angeles. 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. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)
            
              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

A girl receives drops of vaccine from a medical worker during a polio immunization campaign at Sigl...
Associated Press

Polio is back in Indonesia, sparking vaccination campaign

PIDIE, Indonesia (AP) — Children in school uniforms and toddlers with their parents lined up Monday for polio vaccinations in the Sigli town square on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, after four children were found infected with the highly contagious disease that was declared eradicated in the country less than a […]
4 hours ago
FILE- This Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, file photo shows the sun bouncing off the Europol headquarters...
Associated Press

Police bring down European cocaine “super cartel”

BRUSSELS (AP) — Law enforcement authorities in six different countries have joined forces to take down a “super cartel” of drugs traffickers controlling about one third of the cocaine trade in Europe, the European Union crime agency said on Monday. Europol said 49 suspects have been arrested during the investigation, with the latest series of […]
4 hours ago
FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping waves at an event to introduce new members of the Politburo Sta...
Associated Press

China’s Xi faces public anger over draconian ‘zero COVID’

SHANGHAI (AP) — Barely a month after granting himself new powers as China’s potential leader for life, Xi Jinping is facing a wave of public anger of the kind not seen for decades, sparked by his draconian “zero COVID” program that will soon enter its fourth year. Demonstrators poured into the streets over the weekend […]
4 hours ago
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, from left, Chinese astronauts for the upcoming Shenzh...
Associated Press

China rocket taking 3 to space station to blast off Tuesday

BEIJING (AP) — A rocket carrying three astronauts to finish building China’s space station will blast off Tuesday amid intensifying competition with the U.S., the government said Monday, The crew includes a veteran of a 2005 space mission and two first-time astronauts, according to the China Manned Space Agency. The Shenzhou-15 mission will take off […]
4 hours ago
A passerby tries to pass through a protest in Beijing, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. Protesters angered by...
Associated Press

China affirms zero-COVID stance, eases rules after protests

BEIJING (AP) — Authorities eased anti-virus rules in scattered areas but affirmed China’s severe “zero- COVID” strategy Monday after crowds demanded President Xi Jinping resign during protests against controls that confine millions of people to their homes. The government made no comment on the protests or criticism of Xi, the most widespread display of opposition […]
4 hours ago
FILE - Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko talks with US President George W.Bush, at the NATO Sum...
Associated Press

14 years on, NATO to renew a vow to Ukraine

BUCHAREST (AP) — NATO returns on Tuesday to the scene of one of its most controversial decisions, intent on repeating its vow that Ukraine — now suffering through the 10th month of a war against Russia — will join the world’s biggest military alliance one day. NATO foreign ministers will gather for two days at […]
4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Quantum Fiber

Stream 4K and more with powerful, high-speed fiber internet

Picking which streaming services to subscribe to are difficult choices, and there is no room for internet that cannot handle increased demands.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Here are 4 signs the HVAC unit needs to be replaced

Pool renovations and kitchen upgrades may seem enticing, but at the forefront of these investments arguably should be what residents use the most. In a state where summertime is sweltering, access to a functioning HVAC unit can be critical.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Ways to prevent clogged drains and what to do if you’re too late

While there are a variety of ways to prevent clogged drains, it's equally as important to know what to do when you're already too late.
Senators push to reform police’s cellphone tracking tools