Obscure Analytics Tool Helps Cops Make Sense Of All That Location Data They're Grabbing Without A Warrant

from the flying-under-the-radar-love dept

FOIA requests, leaked documents, data breaches, Congressional testimony… all of these have led to the outing of cellphone surveillance tech utilized by law enforcement. As far back as 2014, Chris Soghoian — former ACLU “technologist” and current Senator Wyden advisor — was telling cops their “secret” Stingray devices weren’t all that secret anymore.

But the market for tracking people via their cellphones remains uncornered. For the most part, Stingrays (cell tower spoofers) need warrants to operate. The same goes for demanding weeks or months of historical cell site location data from service providers.

The courts may be deciding there’s a bit more Fourth Amendment to go around these days, but cops seem to be deciding there’s more Fourth than ever that should be avoided. New tools, toys, and tactics are in play. “Reverse warrants” contain the word “warrant,” but they demand info on every cellphone user in a certain area at a certain time, flipping probable cause on its head. Data brokers collecting location data from apps sell access to law enforcement agencies, allowing them to engage in tracking that would be unconstitutional if it involved cell service providers.

There’s a lot of data flowing towards law enforcement agencies. But it’s useless if it can’t be analyzed. That’s where a little known company steps in, giving cops a way to wrangle all that subpoenaed data into something actionable. The Intercept’s Sam Richards has the details.

Until now, the Bartonville, Texas, company Hawk Analytics and its product CellHawk have largely escaped public scrutiny. CellHawk has been in wide use by law enforcement; the software is helping police departments, the FBI, and private investigators around the United States convert information collected by cellular providers into maps of people’s locations, movements, and relationships. Police records obtained by The Intercept reveal a troublingly powerful surveillance tool operated in obscurity, with scant oversight.

CellHawk’s maker says it can process a year’s worth of cellphone records in 20 minutes, automating a process that used to require painstaking work by investigators, including hand-drawn paper plots. The web-based product can ingest call detail records, or CDRs, which track cellular contact between devices on behalf of mobile service providers, showing who is talking to whom. It can also handle cellular location records, created when phones connect to various towers as their owners move around.

It’s yet another law enforcement middle man. Service providers and brokers collect data. Law enforcement asks for this data — often without a warrant. CellHawk ensures the data is usable. And it’s apparently been flying under the radar for years, mainly because it’s not engaged in harvesting this info.

But CellHawk isn’t a harmless interloper. It’s maximizing the impact of data gathered from hundreds of apps and innate cellphone behavior. The company claims it can turn ride-hailing app data into usable “intelligence” and morph millions of GPS data points into a rich tapestry of movements and interpersonal connections.

While CellHawk remains mostly diplomatic on its website, materials sent to potential customers bluntly inform them how powerful the company’s analytic software is. Marketing materials tell investigators they’ll not only be able to determine whether a suspect was at a crime scene, but CellHawk will let them know where they spend most of their time, whether they’ve been anywhere “unusual,” and the most likely location of their bedroom.

The software has plenty of law enforcement fans. And those fans are writing their own rules to use the tool, since it appears to fall between the cracks of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. This is the gap where law enforcement does a lot of work, guided only by their certainty that rights haven’t been violated in this particular way in their jurisdiction prior to their deployment of tools like CellHawk. While Supreme Court precedent suggests warrants are best for tracking people via cellphone data, agencies like the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department (MN) seem to believe a lower standard applies.

It stated that the office needed “[r]easonable suspicion,” which was deemed “present when sufficient facts are established to give … a basis to believe that there is, or has been, a reasonable possibility that an individual or organization is involved in a definable criminal activity or enterprise.”

Make hay while law remains unsettled, as the saying goes. Hawk Analytics is roping in as many law enforcement customers as it can, taking advantage of the lack of on-point court rulings to sell data analytics to agencies engaged in questionable harvesting of location-tracking data. The Intercept’s informal FOIA poll found CellHawk in use in multiple states by multiple departments. It appears the FBI is also a fan of CellHawk’s work, which means the company now has nationwide coverage (so to speak), even if it has yet to find local buyers.

Hawk Analytics is smart. It’s built for the long run. Even if courts find mass collections of location data worthy of Fourth Amendment protections, cops will still be looking for someone to help them parse all the data they’ve obtained. Third-party data brokers may see their fortunes fall, but CellHawk will still be there to analyze the output of those that survive.

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Companies: hawk analytics

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Comments on “Obscure Analytics Tool Helps Cops Make Sense Of All That Location Data They're Grabbing Without A Warrant”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Lack of understanding

Or you know just leave the double age… er, phone at home.


In all seriousness, I’d already assumed they had something like this. Nice to see proof of it, but as others have pointed out, all of the proof in the world means absolutely nothing to people who always assume the worst in others.

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