Smartphone location data from Waze, Starbucks, used by police

We argued only this week that the sale of smartphone location data is out of control, and a new report today provides a perfect illustration. It found that location data was pulled from a number of popular smartphone apps for use by US police, without the knowledge of app users – or even the companies who created the apps.

Billions of location records from some 250 million phones were searched by more than 20 US government agencies, after the private data was purchased from a company called Fog Data Science…

So secretive was its use that it wasn’t even revealed to defense attorneys or judges in cases in which it played a key role – something lawyers say threatens the fairness of the judicial process.

The Associated Press carries a lengthy report, supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

Local law enforcement agencies from suburban Southern California to rural North Carolina have been using an obscure cellphone tracking tool, at times without search warrants, that gives them the power to follow people’s movements months back in time, according to public records and internal emails obtained by The Associated Press.

Police have used “Fog Reveal” to search hundreds of billions of records from 250 million mobile devices, and harnessed the data to create location analyzes known among law enforcement as “patterns of life,” according to thousands of pages of records about the company […]

The company was developed by two former high-ranking Department of Homeland Security officials under ex-President George W. Bush. It relies on advertising identification numbers, which Fog officials say are collected from popular cellphone apps such as Waze, Starbucks and hundreds of others that target ads based on a person’s movements and interests, according to police emails. That information is then sold to companies like Fog […]

What distinguishes Fog Reveal from other cellphone location technologies used by the police is that it follows the devices through their advertising IDs, unique numbers assigned to each device. These numbers do not contain the name of the phone’s user, but can be traced to homes and workplaces to help police establish pattern-of-life analyses.

This appears to describe IDFA, Apple’s IDentifier for Advertisers, and its Android equivalent.

One police employee was so concerned that its use was illegal that he resigned from his job after his department failed to heed his warnings.

“The capability that it had for bringing up just anybody in an area whether they were in public or at home seemed to me to be a very clear violation of the Fourth Amendment,” said Davin Hall, a former crime data analysis supervisor for the Greensboro, North Carolina Police Department. “I just feel angry and betrayed and lied to.”

Hall resigned in late 2020 after months of voicing concerns about the department’s use of Fog to police attorneys and the city council.

In theory, the advertising IDs don’t allow the owner of the phone to be identified, but if you have access to location data showing where the phone spends each night, and where it is located during working hours, it’s not exactly hard to connect it to a specific individual.

Fog says that it buys the data from data brokers, who in turn buy it from app developers. However, developers may use APIs in their apps which capture and sell this location data without them being aware of it. Both Starbucks and Waze state that they had no idea that their app data was being sold.

Starbucks said it had not given permission to its business partners to share customer information with Fog. “Starbucks has not approved Ad ID data generated by our app to be used in this way by Fog Data Science LLC. In our review to date, we have no relationship with this company,” said Megan Adams, a Starbucks spokesperson.

“We have never had a relationship with Fog Data Science, have not worked with them in any capacity, and have not shared information with them,” a Waze spokesperson said.

This is far from unusual, and one of the reasons I argue that the sale of such data should be illegal.

A prosecutor who uses Fog disagrees, saying that if you use free apps, you deserve everything you get.

Metcalf, the Arkansas prosecutor, has argued against congressional efforts to require search warrants when using technologies like Fog Reveal.

He believes Americans have given up any reasonable expectation of privacy when they use free apps. “I think people are going to have to make a decision on whether we want all this free technology, we want all this free stuff, we want all the selfies,” he said. “But we can’t have that and at the same time say, ‘I’m a private person, so you can’t look at any of that.’ That just seems crazy.”

The full piece is eye-opening.

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