Secret tool lets police carry out mass surveillance using app data

ByLance T. Lee

Sep 1, 2022

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Police across the country use data pulled from thousands of apps for surveillance of suspects, often without a search warrant.

The tool, known as “Fog Reveal”, uses advertising ID numbers from apps such as Starbucks and Waze. It is sold by Fog Data Science LLC to target advertisements based on a person’s location and interests.

Law enforcement agencies at all levels of government use Fog Reveal. The report says he is rarely mentioned in court records, and sometimes not at all. Defense attorneys say this makes it difficult to defend their clients in cases involving the tool.

Fog Data Science

Fog Data Science was formed by two former senior officials of the Department of Homeland Security under former President George W. Bush. It buys raw geolocation data from around 250 million devices collected by tens of thousands of apps, then aggregates it into a searchable database containing “billions of data points”.

Fog then provides access to this database to law enforcement as a subscription that can start at $7,500 per year. The company says the data is anonymized, saying it has no way of linking it to specific devices or owners.

Analysis can identify individuals

The company often partners with Venntel, Inc., a data broker that also works with law enforcement. Together, they can work to better understand people’s lives, such as home addresses “and other clues that help detectives understand people’s identities.”

Using the data, police can create a geofence around specific areas during an investigation. They can also look up the ID number of a specific device.

Investigators can enter location coordinates into Fog Reveal to see what device IDs were found near a crime scene, dating back up to 180 days. However, emails from a representative of Fog reveal that the data can be traced back to June 2017.

Even if there is no crime scene, Fog boasts in its marketing materials that it can offer police “predictive analytics” that claim to predict future crime hotspots. The company says it can provide real-time data on people’s daily movements with their trackable smartphones.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this mass surveillance is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures. In one case, Carpenter v. United Statesthe United States Supreme Court has ruled that the Fourth Amendment requires police to obtain a warrant before seizing historical location data from telephone companies.

Location data and its use

Documents reveal that Fog claims its tool uses data voluntarily given up by people, even though the apps collect data more often than not without consent. Features like App Tracking Transparency can be considered advertising consent.

Data passes through many hands. Users and sometimes even some app creators are unaware that their data is being sold to law enforcement.

Letter from Fog Data Science

Letter from Fog Data Science

Megan Adams, spokeswoman for Starbucks, said the company was not aware that its advertising data was being used in this way.

“Starbucks has not approved the Ad ID data generated by our app for use in this manner by Fog Data Science LLC,” Adams said. “In our review to date, we have no relationship with this company.”

A Waze spokesperson said much the same as Starbucks.

“We have never had a relationship with Fog Data Science, worked with them in any capacity, or shared information with them,” Waze said.

It is reasonable to assume that his data was collected from Fog’s database. People can use ad blockers and make sure the toggle is disabled in Settings > Privacy & Security > Tracking on iPhone. Ultimately, it is up to local, state and federal governments to limit this and enact – and enforce – strong privacy legislation.

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