Feds looking over your shoulder, with purchases of cell phone, internet data

(Image courtesy Pexels)
(Image courtesy Pexels)

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If you like your friends and relatives looking over your shoulder as you send some of your most confidential text messages, then you’ll probably like what the government is doing: buying from contractors private cell phone and internet data.

To track you.

If you don’t like it, there are civil liberties lawyers who already are raising alarm bells about the development.

A report from Just the News pointed out that the trend hasn’t gotten a lot of attention yet.

But it said law enforcement agencies “at every level of government” more and more are purchasing data from private data brokers who sell information about Americans, their phones, and their data.

Often without a warrant.

Just the News reported supporters say such activity helps investigations, but there are those, too, who express concern about the civil liberties issues involved. They say legislation might be needed to set the rules.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends civil liberties in the digital world, revealed one of the latest developments.

“EFF recently obtained a trove of records through Freedom of Information Act requests on local and state police departments, as well as federal entities, purchasing a cellphone tracking tool that can monitor people’s movements going back months in time,” Just the News reported.

The organization discovered that a company, Fog Data Science, has a tool, Fog Reveal, which has “billions” of data points on millions of devices.

And the company has contracts to give details to multiple police agencies.

“Local law enforcement is at the front lines of trafficking and missing persons cases, yet these departments are often behind in technology adoption,” Matthew Broderick, a Fog managing partner, told the AP. “We fill a gap for underfunded and understaffed departments.”

Aaron Mackey, a lawyer for EFF, said, however, “Reporting and a recent investigation by EFF confirms that law enforcement across the country is regularly getting access to our private movements — with the ability to retrace our daily lives — often without a warrant.

“This is an end-run around the Fourth Amendment and permits broad surveillance that can sweep up anyone who happens to be near the scene of a crime.”

The report said the information comes from various smartphone apps that involve location. If a phone owner grants permission for that information to be accessed, the app company has it, and then can sell it.

A recent Vice report also noted another tool, called Augury, which claims to cover 90% of the world’s internet traffic.

“Vice found that the U.S. Navy, Army, Cyber Command, and the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency have collectively paid at least $3.5 million to access Augury, allowing them to track internet usage and access large amounts of sensitive information,” Just the News reported.

Members of Congress now, too, have expressed interest in what companies are buying data on Americans.

The report continued, “Among the largest government buyers of bulk location data is the Department of Homeland Security and several of its agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol.”

The government already is facing one lawsuit, from the Heritage Foundation, over the acquisition and retention of private data location information.

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