Police use tech tool that offers ‘mass surveillance on a budget’

American police are using a powerful but inexpensive cellphone tracking tool to solve crimes, sometimes using it to track people without a search warrant.

Local law enforcement agencies from suburban Southern California to rural North Carolina have been using an obscure cellphone tracking tool that allows them to follow people’s movements months back in time, according to public records and internal emails obtained by The Associated Press

All mobile devices are assigned what’s called an advertising identification number, a unique code that allows apps with location services to target consumers with promotions.

For as little as $7,500 a year, Virginia-based Fog Data Science offers a service called ‘Fog Reveal’ that uses that identification number to track a device’s wanderings, when location services are enabled.

Fog heavily markets its product to law enforcement by promoting what it calls a ‘pattern of life’ analysis, which can stretch back months.

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Public records specialist Bennett Cyphers, an advisor with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, calls Fog Reveal ‘sort of a mass surveillance program on a budget’.

He and others believe police use of the platform without a warrant is a violation of people’s Fourth Amendment rights.

In a written response to The Associated Press, Fog said it cannot disclose information about its customers. The company said it does not access or have anything to do with personally identifiable information and is leveraging commercially available data.

Arkansas prosecutor Kevin Metcalf says Fog simply uses data that people give away for free, and that it is most useful in cases where time is of the essence. Metcalf also leads the National Child Protection Task Force, a nonprofit that combats child exploitation and trafficking. Metcalf says Fog, which is listed as a task force sponsor, has been invaluable to cracking missing children cases and homicides.

Metcalf also shared his Fog account in the 2020 search for a missing nurse. The tool has been used by agencies as diverse as the US Marshals and a sheriff’s department in a North Carolina county with just 91,000 residents.

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