According to public records requests obtained by Triad City Beat, the Greensboro Police Department spent a total of $18,000 on a surveillance tool in 2020 and 2021 that an investigation by the Associated Press 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 hundreds of billions of records from 250 million mobile devices, and harnessed the data to create location analyses known as ‘patterns of life.’”
In addition to agencies in California and Arkansas, Greensboro’s own police department was named in the lengthy investigative piece as one of the entities to have contracted with Fog Data Science LLC out of Virginia. After the story was published, TCB filed a public records request asking for the following: How long the department contracted with Fog Reveal; When the contract started; How much the contract cost; How much data was collected; How many users’ data did the program capture; How and for how long the data would be stored by the department.
On Nov. 2 — almost two months after TCB submitted the records requests — Ron Glenn, the city’s public information officer, responded with just two documents: two separate invoices that showed that the police department paid $9,000 in both 2020 and 2021 for one-year subscriptions to use Fog Reveal. The invoices noted that the subscriptions allowed access to 350 queries per month. Calculated over the course of two years, that’s 8,400 queries. The city did not answer TCB’s additional questions, stating that “the additional information sought by the requester in this PIRT is not defined as public records.”
While the total amount spent by GPD may not seem substantial, an interview with a former GPD employee shows that Fog Reveal is just a blip on the radar in an increasingly surveillance-oriented law enforcement landscape.
‘I started to get more unsettled’
Davin Hall began working at the Greensboro Police Department in December 2014 as a crime analyst. Day to day, his work varied but mostly focused on looking at crime data in the city including burglaries, robberies, break-ins.
“We would look for identifiable series in those offenses so that information could be shared with police patrol,” Hall told TCB. “For example, if someone was going through a neighborhood and breaking into houses, we would identify that pattern quickly.”
The main way that analysts like Hall would do so was by combing through police reports that came in and looking at the common factors across crimes like geography. The GPD has a public-facing program that allows members of the community to look at similar data online.
Rather than reading every single police report that came in, the department uses third-party vendors that hook up to the records-management system so the data is easily accessible and user-friendly. The software is fairly straightforward and most law enforcement agencies use something similar to track crime. So when the department started looking into Fog Reveal a few years later, Hall didn’t think anything of it at first.
“It didn’t immediately throw a red flag,” they said. “There’s lots of software that we use that it was similar to. But the more I began learning about it, I started to get more unsettled. And then when they started the free trial, I wasn’t comfortable with it; I didn’t ask to use it.”
According to reporting by the AP, Fog Reveal has been used since at least 2018 in criminal investigations from the murder of a nurse in Arkansas to tracing the movements of a potential Jan. 6 participant. 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 cell phones. Apps like Waze, Starbucks and others send targeted ads to users based on their movements and interests and subsequently sell the unique IDs to companies like Fog.
On its face, the unique ID doesn’t have any identifiable information attached to it like a name or even the user’s phone number. But Hall said that 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 narrow down to see which devices were used near the location of a crime.
How does Fog Reveal work?
While Hall never used the technology when he worked for GPD, he said that the way it worked was simple. An entity that wanted to use Fog Reveal would purchase a user license for it — GPD purchased one — and that indicated the number of users. Once the technology was bought, users could log into the application where they would see a map. They could then draw an outline around an area and add a time frame and the application would spit back out all of the mobile device ids within that time frame and location. Users could then pick a specific mobile ID number and run a greater search on just that one device. According to the AP’s reporting, searches could go back as far as three years for one device.
And that’s the most useful part, Hall said.
“If you had three robberies that occurred, you could search within those locations and find a device number and then run a search for that ID number,” Hall explained. “Then, one of the most useful things is that if you saw a device was pinging or was stationary for 8-12 hours overnight, you could see where that person was living and then you could use additional information to identify who that person was.”
The beauty of the technology, for law enforcement agencies, is to be able to acquire specific data like this without warrants.
The AP explains how the Fog data is different because it’s quick.
“Geofence warrants, which tap into GPS and other sources to track a device, are accessed by obtaining such data from companies, like Google or Apple,” AP reports. “This requires 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-gathering seemed like a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against illegal search and seizure, to Hall.
“I think it’s just a straight-up privacy violation of the Fourth Amendment,” they said. “Anyone who is in the area that’s being captured can have their device picked up by it and any device can be searched by it without a warrant…. Anybody using the software can run any search with practically no oversight; I think it’s a huge privacy concern.”
Hall resigned in late 2020 after voicing their concerns to police attorneys and to city council.
“The city’s standpoint at the time was that because the mobile 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 about privacy concerns with regards to the use of Fog Reveal.
According to the AP, a Missouri official also attested to the ease with which capable analysts could track owners using the data.
“There is no (personal information) linked to the (ad ID),” wrote the Missouri official about Fog in 2019. “But if we are 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 Aug. 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 where a mobile device user lives, which violates rules the commission enforces,” the AP reported.
There are also bills before Congress now that, if passed, would regulate the industry.
But for now, Fog continues to operate under the argument that they don’t provide personally identifiable information. And law enforcement agencies are more than happy to buy in.
“It’s a shiny new toy and police departments really like those kinds of things,” Hall said. “On its face, it can be pitched as a crime-fighting tool.
“Police departments will do as much as they can get away with in terms of constitutional rights,” Hall continued. “If things are not expressly forbidden, they are okay with moving forward with it. They wouldn’t have any 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 to abortion rights.
“It could be used on protesters,” Hall said. “They could geofence when there’s a protest going on downtown and identify people who are marching against police. It could also be used to track abortion patients or anything that could be illegal. It’s a great example of how it could be used in a purely legal way to create harm in any community; that doesn’t help public safety.”
Despite there being no increase in violent crime over the last few years, many politicians have touted the idea of a crime wave to increase funding for law enforcement agencies. That 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 reporting by the News & Record, 10 readers have been installed in Greensboro, which has cost the city $27,500. In at least two instances, the technology has helped find vehicles and charge 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 that Greensboro is using, for 24 cameras, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Earlier this year, the Winston-Salem Police Department got a $700,000 upgrade to their real-time crime center, too.
But those wary about increased surveillance, like Hall, say that more technology like this is intrusive.
“I would say that it’s enhancing the system of policing that in and of itself is not an effective way to increase public safety,” they said. “I think it’s focused on maintaining the social order as it exists. When you have an inequitable society as we do, maintaining those inequities is harmful. That is a big feature of what police actions do.”
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