Civil rights lawyers and Democratic senators are pushing for legislation limiting 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 defence 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 and 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.
Panellists and members of the public who took part in the FTC hearing also raised concerns about how data generated by popular apps are 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.
Two former high-ranking Department of Homeland Security officials developed Fog Reveal 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.