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Virginia Police Routinely Use Secret GPS Pings To Track People’s Cell Phones

The nonprofit online news site Virginia Mercury investigated their state police departments’ “real-time location warrants,” which are “addressed to telephone companies, ordering them to regularly ping a customers’ phone for its GPS location and share the results with police.” Public records requests submitted to a sampling of 18 police departments around the state found officers used the technique to conduct more than 7,000 days worth of surveillance in 2020. Court records show the tracking efforts spanned cases ranging from high-profile murders to minor larcenies…. Seven departments responded that they did not have any relevant billing records, indicating they don’t use the technique. Only one of the departments surveyed, Alexandria, indicated it had an internal policy governing how their officers use cellphone tracking, but a copy of the document provided by the city was entirely redacted….

Drug investigations accounted for more than 60 percent of the search warrants taken out in the two jurisdictions. Larcenies were the second most frequent category. Major crimes like murders, rapes and abductions made up a fraction of the tracking requests, accounting for just under 25 of the nearly 400 warrants filed in the jurisdictions that year.
America’s Supreme Court “ruled that warrantless cellphone tracking is unconstitutional back in 2012,” the article points out — but in practice those warrants aren’t hard to get. “Officers simply have to attest in an affidavit that they have probable cause that the tracking data is ‘relevant to a crime that is being committed or has been committed’…. There’s been limited public discussion or awareness of the kinds of tracking warrants the judiciary is approving.” “I don’t think people know that their cell phones can be converted to tracking devices by police with no notice,” said Steve Benjamin, a criminal defense lawyer in Richmond who said he’s recently noticed an uptick in cases in which officers employed the technique. “And the reality of modern life is everyone has their phone on them during the day and on their nightstand at night. … It’s as if the police tagged them with a chip under their skin, and people have no idea how easily this is accomplished.”
The case for these phone-tracking warrants?

  • The executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police tells the site that physical surveillance ofen requires too many resources — and that cellphone tracking is safer. “It may be considered an intrusive way of gathering data on someone, but it’s certainly less dangerous than physical tracking.”
  • A spokesperson for the Chesterfield County police department [responsible for 64% of the state’s tracking] argued that “We exist to preserve human life and protect the vulnerable, and we will use all lawful tools at our disposal to do so.” And they added that such “continued robust enforcement efforts” were a part of the reason that the county’s still-rising number of fatal drug overdoses had not risen more.

The site also obtained bills from four major US cellphone carriers, and reported how much they were charging police for providing their cellphone-tracking services:

  • “T-Mobile charged $30 per day, which comes to $900 per month of tracking.”
  • “AT&T charged a monthly service fee of $100 and an additional $25 per day the service is utilized, which comes to $850 per 30 days of tracking…”
  • “Verizon calls the service ‘periodic location updates,’ charging $5 per day on top of a monthly service fee of $100, which comes to $200 per 30 days of tracking.”
  • “Sprint offered the cheapest prices to report locations back to law enforcement, charging a flat fee of $100 per month.”

Surveillance Company Banjo Used a Secret Company and Fake Apps To Scrape Social Media

Banjo, an artificial intelligence firm that works with police used a shadow company to create an array of Android and iOS apps that looked innocuous but were specifically designed to secretly scrape social media. The news signifies an abuse of data by a government contractor, with Banjo going far beyond what companies which scrape social networks usually do. Banjo created a secret company named Pink Unicorn Labs, according to three former Banjo employees, with two of them adding that the company developed the apps. This was done to avoid detection by social networks, two of the former employees said.

Three of the apps created by Pink Unicorn Labs were called “One Direction Fan App,” “EDM Fan App,” and “Formula Racing App.” Motherboard found these three apps on archive sites and downloaded and analyzed them, as did an independent expert. The apps — which appear to have been originally compiled in 2015 and were on the Play Store until 2016 according to Google — outwardly had no connection to Banjo, but an analysis of its code indicates connections to the company. This aspect of Banjo’s operation has some similarities with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with multiple sources comparing the two incidents. […] The company has not publicly explained how it specifically scrapes social media apps. Motherboard found the apps developed by Pink Unicorn Labs included code mentioning signing into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Russian social media app VK, FourSquare, Google Plus, and Chinese social network Sina Weibo.
The apps could have scraped social media “by sending the saved login token to a server for Banjo to use later, or by using the app itself to scrape information,” reports Motherboard, noting that it’s not entirely clear which method Banjo used. “Motherboard found that the apps when opened made web requests to the domain ‘pulapi.com,’ likely referring to Pink Unicorn Labs, but the site that would provide a response to the app is currently down.”

Last weekend, Motherboard reported that Banjo signed a $20.7 million contract with Utah in 2019 that granted the company access to the state’s traffic, CCTV, and public safety cameras. “Banjo promises to combine that input with a range of other data such as satellites and social media posts to create a system that it claims alerts law enforcement of crimes or events in real-time.”

In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags

A new system uses software to dictate quarantines — and appears to send personal data to police, in a troubling precedent for automated social control. As China encourages people to return to work despite the coronavirus outbreak, it has begun a bold mass experiment in using data to regulate citizens’ lives — by requiring them to use software on their smartphones that dictates whether they should be quarantined or allowed into subways, malls and other public spaces. But a New York Times analysis of the software’s code found that the system does more than decide in real time whether someone poses a contagion risk. It also appears to share information with the police, setting a template for new forms of automated social control that could persist long after the epidemic subsides.

The Alipay Health Code, as China’s official news media has called the system, was first introduced in the eastern city of Hangzhou — a project by the local government with the help of Ant Financial, a sister company of the e-commerce giant Alibaba. People in China sign up through Ant’s popular wallet app, Alipay, and are assigned a color code — green, yellow or red — that indicates their health status. The system is already in use in 200 cities and is being rolled out nationwide, Ant says. Neither the company nor Chinese officials have explained in detail how the system classifies people. That has caused fear and bewilderment among those who are ordered to isolate themselves and have no idea why.