Virginia Company Providing Mass Surveillance To Law Enforcement

Luke Allen, Editor

A Virginia based company called Fog Data science is allowing US law enforcement to find where a suspect has visited up to a month back in time, without the need for a warrant. The company provides it’s users with the advertising ID numbers, the unique number assigned to electronic devices by apps like Waze. These advertising IDs can then be used to learn where the owner of the device works, lives, and everywhere else they’ve been to within the last month.

The company provides this data through their web application Fog Reveal which allows customers to to point and click on a Google Earth style map to access a trail of recent locations of people in the area. Specific information provided to costumers of Fog Reveal includes latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates of the device along with a timestamp of when those coordinates were recorded and the device ID. The company can also access data records going back to at least July of 2017. 

Fog’s services are completely legal and so are their data collection methods. The company keeps the all of the device user’s information anonymous. This means that it’s perfectly legal for law enforcement agencies to access all of the device data provided by Fog reveal without a warrant as all data provided is technically public information which does not require a warrant to use. 

Matthew Broderick, one of the company’s managing partners, said in an email that the company does not have access to the personal information of the owners of the devices they track, and draws from “commercially available data without restrictions to use,” from data brokers “that legitimately purchase data from apps in accordance with their legal agreements.” Broderick continued stating that. “We are confident Law Enforcement has the responsible leadership, constraints, and political guidance at the municipal, state, and federal level to ensure that any law enforcement tool and method is appropriately used in accordance with the laws in their respective jurisdictions.”

Many view Fog’ services as an invasion of privacy and possible violation of the Fourth Amendment despite the legality of the companies sales due to how queries are conducted through the Fog Reveal tool and the fact a warrant isn’t needed to use it. Fog Reveal users can run two different kinds of queries on the application. Area searches and Device searches. Device searches allow users to search one or more specific devices and the app will produce a list of locations which form the subjects “pattern of life” which includes likely residencies and locations of interest.

 Area searches allow users to draw one or more shapes on the map and specify a time range to search. Fog Reveal then will show a list of all cell-phone device location data within the specified area and time. What’s important with the area search method is that it exposes the movements of all devices in the designated area and time frame. Meaning that even people not even remotely associated with the case have their movements mapped and residency possibly exposed. 

Pictured: screenshots of the Fog Data Science Portal Users Manual provided to the EFF and Associated Press as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.

 

 

In Fog’s user manual the company shares screenshots from the Fog Reveal tool which show examples of area searches and explains how they work. Screenshot 55 shows the device ID numbers along with their address. Although the device data remains anonymous one can easily check the address against public records to find who that address belongs to. Screenshot number 80 shows all separate devices that where shown in a geofenced area search.

Regardless of privacy concerns Fog Reveal has proven itself to be a useful tool. One example from 2020 of Fog Reveal’s abilities was solving the murder of 25 year old nurse Sydney Sutherland who went missing while jogging around Newport, Arkansas. When police found her phone in a ditch they had very little evidence and reached out to an agency with access to Fog Reveal who then shared access to the tool with the US Marshal service. According to law enforcement Fog Reveal allowed them to successfully arrest a farmer in Sutherland’s rape and murder. It has also been used successfully to link suspects back to the Jan 6th riots.

What many people don’t realize is that the terms of service for apps many simply skip over and agree to are legally binding. When you hit the accept button you state that you give the company legal permission to track your location along with the other information about you listed in the terms of service and sell that information to data brokers like Fog Reveal. Even if you’re offline your phone, car and many other electronics still track this kind of data. 

In the modern world everyone’s actions, internet searches, locations, purchases and interests are constantly being recorded and sold. This whether you like it or not is how the modern era of technology, but there are some steps you can take to minimize how much of your information is collected. You can use a VPN (virtual private network) to keep information like your IP address safer, if a company gives you the option, opt out of location data tracking and if possible decline the terms of service if you don’t want information to be collected.

 

 

Works Cited:

Bennet Cyphers (2022, August 31). Inside Fog Data Science, the Secretive Company Selling Mass                                                                                                                                                                   

       Surveillance to Local Police. EFF.  https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2022/08/inside-fog-data-science-secretive-company-selling-mass-surveillance-local-police                 

 

The Associated Press (2022, September 2). Tech tool offers police ‘mass surveillance on a budget’. 

https://wtop.com/national/2022/09/tech-tool-offers-police-mass-surveillance-on-a-budget/

 

Hank Lee, Garance Burke, Jason Dearen (2022, September 5). ‘A very clear violation of the Fourth            

       Amendment’: Police use phone tracking tool to follow people’s movements. https://www.wcnc.com/article/news/crime/police-tracking-mass-surveillance-technology-fog-reveal-cellphone-             gps-data/275-7f2eeab3-57b6-4e4d-bfa6-2a3ecfa2a373