San Diego PD Uses Police Charity To Buy Off-The-Books Phone Cracking Tech

from the getting-the-goods-without-all-the-hassle dept

A law enforcement agency looking to dodge oversight has a few options. First, there’s the 1033 program, which allows agencies to pick up useful things like guns, bullets, armored vehicles, grenade launchers… and… um… filing cabinets, I guess. Going this route means spending federal money rather than local money. So, if you’re not spending local tax dollars, you really don’t need to ask permission.

Another accountability dodge is the discretionary spending allowed by civil asset forfeiture. Law enforcement agencies directly profit from property seized and are given a lot of latitude on spending those dollars. City/county oversight is rarely involved. Very few localities have implemented strict reporting on seizures so the money flows from victims through cop shops and into the hands of cop tech purveyors.

There’s a third option: use private money. Donors with deep pockets and minimal concerns about the people they’re bypassing pay for surveillance tech and other law enforcement goodies. Again, because no public money is involved, the public is left out of the equation. This happened in Baltimore, where a Texas philanthropist purchased an aerial surveillance system capable of covering the entire city. No one was told about it until after it went up in the air.

The same thing is happening elsewhere. Lots of private companies and individuals are buying stuff for police departments, allowing them to circumvent accountability measures. Some of these “private” concerns should be considered public, considering their narrow focus. As ProPublica reported in 2014, the Los Angeles Police Foundation — a “private” charity — asked for $200,000 from Target Corp. to buy the Los Angeles Police Department data analytics software from Palantir. It also purchased several automatic license plate readers for the department. No public oversight was involved since it was “private” money.

Joseph Cox reports on more of this public/private bullshit for Motherboard. Another “private” charity — the San Diego Police Foundation — has gifted local cops with a high tech phone cracking tool.

“The GrayKey was purchased by the Police Foundation and donated to the lab,” an official from the San Diego Police Department’s Crime Laboratory wrote in a 2018 email to a contracting officer, referring to the iPhone unlocking technology GrayKey.

Grayshift’s flagship product generates a pretty strong revenue stream. The following year the Police Foundation helped the SDPD reup its license… which costs exactly as much as the original buy-in.

“This is the phone unlocking technique that the Police Foundation purchased for us (for 15k). Apparently the software ‘upgrade’ costs the same as the initial purchase each year. :/ They are the only ones that offer a tool that can crack iPhones, so they charge A LOT!,” the email reads.

No one’s arguing police departments shouldn’t have access to tools like these. But if they’re using these to perform their public duties, they owe it to the public to inform them about their acquisitions and allow their oversight to do its job. Forming a bunch of “private charities” specifically to provide police departments with off-the-books tech is a spectacularly lousy way to engage in public service.

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Companies: san diego police foundation

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Comments on “San Diego PD Uses Police Charity To Buy Off-The-Books Phone Cracking Tech”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

If the public can't see the bill they shouldn't be paying it

All I’m hearing is that certain police departments have decided that if they’re going to buy gear it’ll be thanks to private donations and therefore they don’t need taxpayer dollars to do the job, something I’m sure will help greatly when it comes time to work out the city budget and who gets what.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Off the books, off the legal coverage

I would assume that anything purchased without the approval of their local government would not be covered by insurance or lawsuits once people start suing over this. The local government should demand that the officers stop using off the books equipment or pay all of their settlements from the police funds instead of tax payers again paying for police malfeasance.

Koby (profile) says:

Security Through Obscurity

If the general public were to switch their belief from a general feeling that data on their smartphone is untouchable, to feeling that anyone with physical access can crack into it, then customers would demand better physical control. New features might defeat whatever methods grayshift currently uses. From the police standpoint, it’s more useful for them to keep their techniques in the dark.

teka says:

Re: Re: Security Through Obscurity

I think it was "Expect the police to whatever they want at any time, peasant. They are a special class and you should be so lucky as to be allowed to kiss their boots when being kicked in the mouth. You should blame ‘Big Tech’ for your problems instead, they are the real baddies for not being willing to Nerd Harder."

Something like that.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

These sound like things one should have a warrant to use.

I assume that no-one is actually going to use these devices and unregulated purchases in a way that violates the fourth amendment of the Constitution of the United States, right?

They’re going to get a warrant before they sweep a residence (for each residence they sweep) or before they crack a phone.


Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: There seems to be a recurring motif

"La Résistance started with single actors who just couldn’t stand anymore witnessing the brutality of the Nazis, and just had to do something."

…and ended up a bunch of village yokels trying to smuggle shady artworks and downed british airmen past a cadre of mostly jovial but greedy, lecherous nazi commanders so inept most people just thought ‘Allo ‘Allo! was just a comedy series, right?

Jokes aside there’s the glum truth that a resistance has never really worked unless it managed to spark a full-on revolution.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Glum truths

It’s curious because that’s a conversation I’ve been having a lot: yes, we discount resistance here in the states because usually we’ve seen it as noisy protests of large crowds in funny hats over specific issues, which is what resistance looks like in a functional nation.

In less functional nations, there is a lot of crossover between resistance, revolution, civil war and terrorism, and the degree to which it is regarded as a blight by the empires to which it has happened.

We have a long school of philosophy regarding counter-insurgency, with a running theme that civil unrest is typically a symptom of poor governance. Even the Pirate Party sees crime less as unruly citizens but a failure of the state and citizens to agree.

But ultimately, when state agents and state officers are abusive, unrest, resistance and organization is inevitable. And we already have law enforcement murdering civilians with impunity. We already have gulags full of miscarriages of justice (what are essentially political prisoners, the lot of them). Once we have a court system that is glad to strip human rights in favor of institutional powers (and religious ideology), we’re likely to see something resembling the Troubles in North Ireland.

I had thought this was inevitable after the midnight cleanup of Occupy Wall Street. Something something peaceful protest impossible. Police and Municipal policy around protests has appeared to not change, but now we have cellphones cameras and streaming.

Something tells me that when the resistance commits to going violent, we’re going to keep the American-identity tradition of going way over the top, and leaving craters where federal buildings used to be.

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