Florida Prisons Are Buying Up Location Data From Data Brokers

from the pretty-extravagant-solution-to-a-well-contained-'problem' dept

Everyone loves buying location data. Sure, the Supreme Court may have said a thing or two about obtaining this data from cell service providers but it failed to say anything specific about buying it from third-party data brokers. Oh well! Any port in an unsettled Constitutional storm, I guess.

The DEA buys this data. So does ICE and the CBP. The Defense Department does it. So does the Secret Service and, at least once, so did the IRS. Data harvested from apps ends up in the hands of companies like Venntel and Babel Street. These companies sell access to this data to a variety of government agencies, allowing them to bypass warrant requirements and phone companies. Sure, the data may not be as accurate as that gathered from cell towers, but it’s still obviously very useful, otherwise these brokers wouldn’t have so many powerful customers.

The latest news on the purchasing of location data comes to us via Joseph Cox and Motherboard — both of which have been instrumental in breaking news about the government’s new source of third-party data capable of tracking people’s movements.

So, who’s using this data now? Well, it’s a government agency overseeing a very captive audience.

The Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), which runs state-owned prisons in the state and is the third largest state prison system in the country, bought access to a tool that lets users track the location of smartphones via data harvested from ordinary apps, Motherboard has found. The tool, called Locate X, allows users to draw a geofence around a particular area, see which phones were at that location, and then follow them onwards or back in time to other places.

Unlike other uses of this data, the FDC’s contract indicates it wants to know who’s using phones inside its prisons. Most prisoners aren’t going anywhere and even if they escaped, location data pulled from apps would be possibly the least useful way to track them down. Instead, it appears this data is being used to locate contraband phones being used by inmates.

But are contraband phones so much of a problem the Department of Corrections should spend nearly $70,000 a year on data broker services? That seems unlikely. And even if prisoners are having phones smuggled in, it would be a stretch to assume they’re all being used to engage in criminal activity. Prison phone services are prohibitively expensive and internet access is severely limited. Some of these phones are being used for nothing more than allowing inmates to stay in contact with loved ones without draining their bank accounts or subjecting them to eavesdropping by prison staff.

Then there’s the unanswered question as to whether the FDC is limiting its data searches to the confines of prisons. If it isn’t, it could be tracking the movements of visitors and making some inferences about their day-to-day existences.

For now, this is all pretty Wild West. No court decisions directly address this and, despite efforts from legislators like Senator Ron Wyden, data brokers haven’t really been willing to share information about their practices and government business partners. And not much has been said by federal and local agencies buying this data, which has filled this void in caselaw with more questions than answers.

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Comments on “Florida Prisons Are Buying Up Location Data From Data Brokers”

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13 Comments
mcinsand says:

A business opportunity? (more likely, me showing my ignorance)

I pay a fee to keep my domains anonymous, and I wonder if there is an opportunity in poisoning the data around a certain phone (IMEI?). Is it even legal to clone the IMEI and SIM for a client that legitimately owns both? If so, could the vendor then spoof the geolocation data associated with the original phone to make the data worthless? Again, would this even be legal? If so, could a large enough pool subscribe to such a vendor to make the body of data effectively worthless?

Sure, I’m probably showing my ignorance by a monster degree. I thought about security risks of another body having that information, but I’m not sure that’s any worse than a telco having the info. I think I’d trust about any rando more than that.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Technical solutions to preserve legal rights

I wonder if this is ultimately a solution, to fog data sources with decoy instances, so that a search within a zone is useless (whereas a search for a specific phone is not).

It seems legal solutions don’t exist: even when we pass laws telling government agencies not to do things, they do them anyways and are not penalized enough to be discouraged (if at all).

Of course, if we abolished prisons, this instance might be moot. Much of these regulations seem to only serve to make inmates more miserable, or to bleed their relatives for more money.

Anonymous Coward says:

Actually, this is the first legitimate use of that data that I have seen.
And yes, cell phones in prisons ARE a problem. No, not all the CALLS are used for illegal activity, but the phones are usually not exclusive to one person. they are rented to other inmates, etc.

However, the better solution would be to use technology to track and trace real time cell signals within the prison, to be able to be notified of the location when the phone is actually being used.

Anonymous Coward says:

I could see faraday bags becoming a hot item.

If you don’t want your phone’s location tracked, just put it in a faraday bag to prevent it from being able to record or send your location data out.

This does not break the law in the United States, Canada, or Mexico, thought it might break the law in Britain, because of the much broader perverting the course of justice laws there.

However, there is no law in the United States that makes it illegal to put your phone in a faraday bag for the purpose of evading tracking.

Anonymous Coward says:

we don't care about laws!

when government is told no, get a warrant. they just find another way to get the same data!
the easiest fix is to shut down the data brokers! advertisers, big tech wont like it! government wont want to do it! but too bad! and what is this simple idea you say….. FIX OUR DATA PRIVACY LAWS! when company’s, government, big tech collects our data to use there products, they CAN NOT sell it to anyone with a nickle! it can only be used by that company for enhancing there service. so if they want to send you ads for there crap that’s OK. selling, trading, giving your data to advertisers for other outside crap, not OK!

Anonymous Coward says:

you are very wrong about cell phones not being that big a problem in prison. their primary use is to coordinate contraband deliveries, and it is not just the phones owner doing it, because they get rented out as well. i don’t know if this is the correct solution, but cell phones are a very serious problem for prison security.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: My concern knows bounds.

Considering the humanitarian crisis that is the entire US penal system, the proper solution is to set all our inmates free. Yes, even the scary ones that (allegedly) murdered people.

We won’t get that. But now the cell phones are one of the few ways whistles get blown about the atrocities committed by prison staff. So I’m not at all ready to call cell phones — or contraband — a problem. It’s certainly not one of the magnitude represented by the prisons, themselves.

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