Local police cell phone snooping highlights lack of surveillance oversight


In December, a congressional oversight committee released a report on the use of cell-site simulators, and claimed federal authorities only use the mobile phone surveillance devices to determine suspects’ locations, rather than to intercept content. A new investigation, however, shows that local law enforcement, at least, has often been using the sophisticated surveillance technology under much looser guidelines.

“In testimony before the Committee, (the Department of Justice) and (Department of Homeland Security) both confirmed the simulator devices they use do not intercept any communications or content from the cellular devices to which they connect,” according to the December House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform report. The report also noted, however, that some of the surveillance tools have greater capabilities than what authorities are technically allowed to use.

“While the current DOJ and DHS policies require the cell-site simulators to be configured as pen registers and to not collect content, some of the cell-site simulator models used by law enforcement components within DOJ and DHS would be capable of collecting content if the devices had the necessary software installed.”

And such scooping up of cell phone communication content is apparently exactly what has been going on at police departments around the country.

According to a new report from The Atlantic‘s CityLab, the result of a ten month investigation, the majority of America’s fifty largest police departments possess either cell-site simulators — the “IMSI-catcher” or “Stingray” devices that mimic cell towers to trick nearby phones and track their locations, about which some information has been revealed in recent years — along with other advanced surveillance technology.

This includes “extraction devices, used to crack open locked phones that are in police possession and scoop out all sorts of private communications and content.”

“With only a few clicks, police can now map out individuals’ social networks, communication timelines, and associates’ locations, based on the data captured by these surveillance tools,” writes CityLab’s George Joseph.

“The records show that at least nineteen police departments acquired cellphone extraction devices, which allow police to crack open locked devices and collect vast amounts of phone data, such as call logs, emails, social media messages, time-stamped past location data, and even deleted texts and photos—without any assistance from cellphone companies. All nineteen of these departments bought extraction devices made by the Israeli firm Cellebrite, whose various versions of the ‘Universal Forensic Extraction Device’ allow cops to scoop up both data immediately visible on the phone and that which has been deleted or hidden. Police spent nearly $745,000 on such tools, which are far less expensive than cellphone interception devices, and thus more accessible to smaller departments.”

Cellebrite is the same company that apparently cracked the iPhone of the alleged San Bernardino shooter, Syed Farook, for the FBI after the bureau’s very public dispute with Apple last year. It was also recently revealed that state police and highway patrols across the country have made extensive use of Cellebrite technology.

The CityLab report also discusses some troubling uses of cell phone surveillance by specific local departments:

In 2012, the Fort Worth police, for example, bought servers and software from a Nebraska company called Pen-Link that enables police to store and organize intercepted cellphone metadata, such as call logs and locations, in computer databases. The Fort Worth Police Department, which secured the acquisition using a DHS Homeland Security Grant program, declined CityLab’s request for interview on its use of Pen-Link, suggesting we file another public records request. And Pen-Link did not respond to CityLab’s request for comment. But publicly available literature on Pen-Link shows that its products can store and process large amounts of intercepted metadata, allowing officers to create visualizations of individuals’ social networks and geolocated calling patterns.

Police departments are also linking together hundreds of people at a time using data captured in cellphone extraction operations. As with Pen-Link, departments that have Cellebrite’s Link Analysis, such as the Miami Police Department, can also create network maps based on individuals’ call and text log histories. Cellebrite’s Link Analysis can also create timelines of all extracted communications between two or more people, including call logs, text messages, and mutual locations. Such data analysis operations, which would have taken police weeks in the past, can now be accomplished with just a few clicks.

It is unclear precisely to what extent federal, state and local authorities share data gathered through these surveillance technologies, though some indications suggest that they may do so frequently.

“News reports suggest that departments in Virginia and Washington are sharing intercepted data through joint access to Pen-Link software and servers,” Joseph writes. “Pen-Link’s product guides point out that law enforcement can use its software to import and export intercepted data to and from national intelligence databases, operated by federal law enforcement agencies who also use Pen-Link, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

The December congressional oversight report noted that DOJ and DHS have adopted policies requiring them to get warrants to use cell-site simulators in most cases, though Congress has not created a more permanent and legally binding framework governing their use. Some states have passed laws related to cell-site simulators and similar technology, but many have not.

“DOJ and DHS should make federal funding and/or approval of cell-site simulator technology to state and local law enforcement contingent on a requirement that these law enforcement agencies at a minimum adopt the new and enhanced guidelines that have been promulgated by DOJ and DHS for the use of these devices,” the report recommended.

“State and local law enforcement agencies should at a minimum adopt policies for the use of cell-site simulators that are equivalent to the new and enhanced guidelines DOJ and DHS have established for their use of these devices,” according to the report. State legislatures, meanwhile, “should enact legislation that governs how law enforcement uses cell-site simulation technology. Legislation should require, with limited exceptions, issuance of a probable cause based warrant prior to law enforcement’s use of these devices.”

In light of these latest revelations from CityLab about the widespread and what appears to be overwhelmingly unchecked local police use of cell phone surveillance technology, the committee’s suggestions are more pertinent than ever.



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