Lawmakers are planning to reform cell phone tracking for police

Although police have used it to search hundreds of billions of records, the Fog Reveal tool is rarely mentioned in court documents.

NEW YORK — Civil rights attorneys and Democratic senators are pushing for legislation that would limit U.S. law enforcement agencies’ ability to buy cellphone tracking tools to track people’s whereabouts, even years back and sometimes without a search warrant.

Concerns have been raised about police use of the tool known as “Fog Reveal”. an investigation by The Associated Press Released earlier this month, it also surfaced in a Federal Trade Commission hearing three weeks ago. Law enforcement agencies have used the platform to sift through hundreds of billions of records from 250 million mobile devices, sucking up people’s geolocation data to compile so-called “life patterns” from thousands of pages of records about the company.

Fog Reveal is sold by Virginia-based company Fog Data Science LLC and has been used in criminal investigations since at least 2018, ranging from the murder of a nurse in Arkansas to tracking the movements of a potential participant in the January 6 riot in the Capitol. The tool is rarely, if ever, mentioned in court documents, which defense attorneys say makes it more difficult for them to adequately defend their clients in cases where the technology has been used.

“Americans are increasingly aware that their privacy is evolving before their eyes and the real-world impact can be devastating. Today, companies we’ve all heard of, as well as companies we don’t even know about, are collecting tons of data about where we go, what we do and who we are,” said Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

Panelists and members of the public who attended the FTC hearing also raised concerns about how data generated by popular apps is being used for surveillance purposes or “in some cases, being used to infer identities and people in the direct harm in the real world, in the physical world and, as noted, are being repurposed for law enforcement and national security purposes,” said Stacey Gray, senior director for US programs for the Future of Privacy Forum.

The FTC declined to comment specifically on Fog Reveal.

Matthew Broderick, a managing partner at Fog, told the AP that local law enforcement has been on the front lines of human trafficking and missing persons cases, but has often fallen behind when it comes to adopting technology.

“We are filling a void for underfunded and understaffed departments,” he said in an email, adding that the company does not have access to individuals’ personal information, nor does it require search warrants. The company refused to share information about how many police agencies it works with.

Fog Reveal was developed by two former senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security under former President George W. Bush. It relies on advertising identification numbers, which Fog officials say come from popular cellphone apps like Waze, Starbucks and hundreds of others that serve ads based on a person’s movements and interests, according to police emails. This 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, which provides clients like Fog with advertising IDs that authorities say can easily be used to find out where a mobile device user lives, in violation of rules enforced by the commission violates. And a bill by Senator Ron Wyden, now before Congress, aims to regulate how government agencies can obtain data from data brokers and other private companies at a time when privacy advocates worry that location tracking could be used for other novel purposes. z like monitoring people who request abortions in states where it is now illegal.

“Not so long ago it took high-tech equipment or a dedicated group of agents to track a person’s movements 24/7. Now all it takes is a few thousand dollars and a willingness to sleep 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 across the country — including in states that have made personal reproductive health choices serious crimes.”

Due to Fog’s secrecy, details about its use are scarce. Most law enforcement agencies won’t talk about it, raising concerns among privacy advocates that it violates the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

Advocates on both sides of the aisle should be concerned about the government’s unrestricted use of Fog Reveal, said former Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who previously served as US House Attorney General.

“Fog Reveal is a slightly de-anonymized tracking of Americans’ daily movements and locations. Where we go can say a lot about who we are, who we connect with, and even what we believe or how we worship,” said Goodlatte, who now serves as senior policy adviser for the Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability. “The current political climate means this technology could be used against people on the left, right and centre. Everyone has an interest in containing this technology.”

The New York City Police Department used Fog Reveal at their Real Time Crime Center in 2018 and 2019, a previously undisclosed relationship confirmed by public records. A spokesman said in an emailed statement that the NYPD used Fog on an experimental basis “solely in the interests of developing leads for criminal investigations and life-saving operations such as missing person searches.” The department didn’t say if it was successful in either scenario.

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

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

Burke reported from San Francisco.

https://www.kvue.com/article/news/nation-world/reform-police-cellphone-tracking/507-e87a47a4-20f1-4985-8687-189c819cff67 Lawmakers are planning to reform cell phone tracking for police

Laura Coffey

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