According to public records requests received from Triad City BeatThe Greensboro Police Department spent a total of $18,000 on a surveillance tool in 2020 and 2021 that an Associated Press investigation called “mass surveillance on a budget.”
On Sept. 2, the AP reported how law enforcement departments across the country have used technology called Fog Reveal to “search for hundreds of billions of records from 250 million mobile devices and use the data to create location analyzes known as “patterns.” of life”. ‘”
In addition to agencies in California and Arkansas, the Greensboro police department was named in the lengthy investigative piece as one of the entities that contracted with Fog Data Science LLC of Virginia. After the story was published, TCB filed a public records request seeking the following: How long the department has contracted with Fog Reveal; When the contract started; How much does the contract cost; How much data was collected; How much user data the program captured; How and for how long the data would be stored by the department.
On November 2 – almost two months later TCB filed requests for the records — Ron Glenn, the city’s public information officer, responded with just two documents: two separate invoices showing the police department paid $9,000 in both 2020 and 2021 for one-year subscriptions to use Fog Reveal. Bills noted that subscriptions allowed access to 350 questions per month. Calculated over two years, there are 8,400 questions. The city did not respond TCBs additional questions, stating that “the additional information requested by the requester in this PIRT is not defined as public records”.
While the total amount spent by the GPD may not seem significant, an interview with a former GPD employee shows that the Fog Detection is just a blip on the radar in an increasingly surveillance-oriented law enforcement landscape .
“I started to get more worried”
Davin Hall began working at the Greensboro Police Department in December 2014 as a crime analyst. From day to day, his work varied, but mainly focused on looking at crime data in the city, including burglaries, robberies, thefts.
“We would look for identifiable series in those offenses so that information could be shared with the police patrol,” Hall said. TCB. “For example, if someone was walking through a neighborhood and walked into a house, we would identify that pattern quickly.”
The main way analysts like Hall would do this was by analyzing the police reports that came in and looking at common factors for the crimes like geography. GPD has a public program that allows community members to view similar records online.
Instead of reading every single police report that comes in, the department uses third-party vendors that connect to the data management system so that the data is easily accessible and user-friendly. The software is pretty straightforward and most law enforcement agencies use something similar to track crime. So when the department started looking into Reveal Fog a few years later, Hall didn’t think anything of it at first.
“It didn’t immediately raise a red flag,” they said. “There is a lot of software that we use that was similar to it. But the more I began to learn about it, the more concerned I became. And then when they started the free trial, I wasn’t comfortable with it; I didn’t ask to use it.”
Fog Reveal has been used since at least 2018 in criminal investigations from the killing of a nurse in Arkansas to tracking the movements of a potential participant on Jan. 6, according to AP reporting. Developed by two former high-ranking Department of Homeland Security officials under former President George W. Bush, the technology uses mobile ID numbers that are unique to every mobile device, including cellphones. Apps like Waze, Starbucks and others send users targeted ads based on their movements and interests and then sell the unique IDs to companies like Fog.
On its face, the unique ID does not have any identifiable information attached to it such as a name or even the user’s phone number. But Hall said for those who know what they’re doing, it’s a relatively simple process to figure out who the person is. And that’s because when police use the data, they can be limited to seeing which devices were used near a crime scene.
How does Fog Reveal work?
While Hall never used the technology while working for GPD, he said the way it worked was simple. An entity that wanted to use Fog Reveal would buy a user license for it – GPD bought one – and that indicated the number of users. Once the technology was purchased, users could access the app where they would see a map. They can then draw an outline around an area and add a time frame, and the app will pull up all mobile device IDs within that time frame and location. Users can then select a specific Mobile ID number and perform a larger search on that device only. According to AP reporting, searches can go back up to three years for a device.
And that’s the most rewarding part, Hall said.
“If you’ve had three robberies that have occurred, you can search within those locations and find a device number and then do a search for that ID number,” Hall explained. “Then one of the most useful things is if you see that a device is beeping or was stationary for 8-12 hours overnight, you can see where that person lived and then you can use additional information to identify that who was that person “
The beauty of the technology, for law enforcement agencies, is being able to obtain specific data like this without a warrant.
AP explains how fog data is different because it’s fast.
“Geofence commands, which use GPS and other sources to track a device, are achieved by obtaining data from companies such as Google or Apple,” the AP reports. “This requires the police to obtain a warrant and ask the tech companies for the specific data they want, which can take days or weeks.”
And that’s why this kind of specific data collection seemed like a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against illegal search and seizure, to Hall.
“I think it’s just a direct violation of Fourth Amendment privacy,” they said. “Anyone in the area being intercepted can get their device and any device can be searched by her without a warrant…. Anyone using the software can perform any search virtually unsupervised; I think it’s a huge privacy concern.”
Hall resigned in late 2020 after voicing their concerns to police attorneys and the city council.
“The city’s view at the time was that because the cellphone ID number did not contain any personally identifiable information, it was fair game as a search,” Hall said. “I think it’s kind of a ridiculous argument because if there wasn’t any personally identifiable information, we wouldn’t want it.”
The city did not respond to requests from TCB regarding privacy concerns regarding the use of Fog Reveal.
According to the AP, a Missouri official also testified to the ease with which skilled analysts could track down owners using the data.
“There is no (personal information) associated with (ad ID),” the Missouri official wrote to Fog in 2019. “But if we’re good at what we do, we should be able to figure out the owner.”
How is it legal and why do departments use it?
As reported by the AP, oversight of companies like Fog continues to evolve. On August 29, “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 out where a user lives. mobile device, which violates the rules enforced by the commission. “, AP reported.
There are also bills before Congress right now that, if passed, would regulate the industry.
But for now, Fog continues to operate under the argument that they don’t give out personally identifiable information. And law enforcement agencies are more than happy to buy.
“It’s a shiny new toy, and police departments really like that kind of stuff,” Hall said. “At first glance, it can be presented as a tool to fight crime.
“Police departments will do as much as they can with respect to constitutional rights,” Hall continued. “If things are not expressly prohibited, they are fine to go ahead with it. They would have no qualms about using it.”
While GPD no longer uses Fog Reveal, Hall said that in areas where the technology is still being used, it could pose a threat to protesters or abortion rights.
“It could be used for protesters,” Hall said. “They can attack geographically when there is a protest going on in the city center and identify the people who are marching against the police. It can also be used to track abortion patients or anything that might be illegal. It is an excellent example of how it can be used in a perfectly legal way to create harm in any community; this does not help public safety.”
Despite the fact that there has been no increase in violent crime in recent years, many politicians have championed the idea of a crime wave to increase funding for law enforcement agencies. This includes more funding for surveillance technology.
In recent months, the Greensboro Police Department has announced the installation of license plate readers to help reduce crime. According to the report of News & Record, 10 readers have been installed in Greensboro, costing the city $27,500. In at least two cases, the technology has helped locate vehicles and charge the drivers with possession of stolen property and delinquency of a minor. In Winston-Salem, the police department is considering a pilot program with Flock Safety, the same company Greensboro is using, for 24 cameras, according to Winston-Salem Journal.
Earlier this year, the Winston-Salem Police Department received a $700,000 upgrade to their real-time crime center.
But those wary of increased surveillance, like Hall, say more technology like this is intrusive.
“I would argue that it is improving the policing system that in itself is not an effective way to increase public safety,” they said. “I think it is focused on preserving the social order as it exists. When you have an unequal society like ours, maintaining those inequalities is harmful. This is a great feature of police actions.”
Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB’s editorial staff.
We believe reporting can save the world.
TCB’s First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free and unfettered press with a variety of local experiences designed to build community and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand and shape the critical role of local journalism in uplifting people in our cities.
All proceeds go directly to the newsroom as journalists’ salaries and independent commissions.
🗲 Join the 🗲 Society