UPDATED 5:20 PM PT – Thursday, September 1, 2022
Law enforcement agencies across the nation are using a powerful piece of software to track Americans’ phones.
The program known as Fog Reveal, has been used to search billions of records from mobile devices and harnesses the data to create analyses known among law enforcement as “patterns of life.” Davin Hall, a former police data analyst, spoke in detail about the software.
“You can see all of the locations that it’s been,” Hall said. “You can see where it’s moving around. You can see where it’s stopping. You can see where people, um, where people live, where people work.”
Sold by Fog Data Science LLC, Fog revealed that it has been used since 2018 in criminal investigations, although the tool is rarely mentioned in court records which defense attorneys say makes it harder for them to properly defend their clients in cases in which the technology was used.
“That ad ID number will ping periodically,” Hall said. “And it gives off the number, the time and the location in that ping.”
The program takes advantage of the fact that every mobile device is assigned a unique advertising identification number. This allows apps with location services to target consumers with promotions. For as little as $7,500 dollars a year, Fog Data Science offers the service. The service uses ad-ID to track a device’s path when location services are enabled. However, the concern is that most of the time officers can use Fog Reveal without a warrant to search for personal information about nearly anyone.
“I don’t think it should be used by law enforcement,” Hall remarked. “And at the very least, I think people should be aware that it is being used, and that this kind of surveillance is going on.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation led an investigation into how the program is used. It was found that Fog Data Science has created a search engine for officers to create geo-fenced device searches to find the so-called “patterns of life.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) countered the claim that Fog’s product only contains anonymous data and no personally identifiable information. Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at Electronic Frontier Foundation spoke on the topic.
“The Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect us from being spied on by the government. It’s supposed to mean that the government can’t go into your phone and take out intimate data about your life without legal process,” said Cyphers. “So, if police aren’t using, aren’t acquiring warrants before using a service like Fog, that’s essentially buying their way around the Fourth Amendment.”
Fog Reveal has successfully been used to solve multiple missing person and murder cases. The cases include a hit and run and the case of Sydney Sutherland, a 25-year-old nurse who was kidnapped and killed in Arkansas in 2020. Arkansas prosecutor, Kevin Metcalf, is using this as evidence to advocate for the use of Fog Reveal in law enforcement.
“If we do use the very sensitive date, we’re looking at: Is somebody in danger?” Is a life in danger? asked Metcalf. “That’s what we, we push the limits on investigative methodology. How does technology apply, and where does that technology connect to other technologies and open-source data and legal process.”
Fog claimed in a written response to the Associated Press that it cannot disclose information about its customers, but it does not access or have anything to do with personally identifiable information and is merely leveraging commercially available data.