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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Filed Under: charity, encryption, phone cracking, police, san diego
Companies: san diego police foundation


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 9 Oct 2020 @ 1:15pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2020 @ 2:00pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Brad (profile), 12 Oct 2020 @ 12:15pm

      Re: Off the books, off the legal coverage

      The state needs to copy and paste the federal Anti-Deficiency Act into state law. No legislative appropriation or authorization to accept money from another source, no spending. As a federal employee I'd have been utterly fucked if I were accepting funding from an outside party.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Koby (profile), 9 Oct 2020 @ 2:21pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2020 @ 2:35pm

      Re: Security Through Obscurity

      What?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2020 @ 5:59pm

        Re: Re: Security Through Obscurity

        I think he said, Shiny side out

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        teka, 12 Oct 2020 @ 5:00am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 9 Oct 2020 @ 9:29pm

    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.

    Right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 9 Oct 2020 @ 9:31pm

    So how do we organize?

    When enough of us are tired enough of living in a fascist police state and we want to start a tire-slashing, cell-tower sabotaging, counter-disinformation campaign, how do we organize?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Oct 2020 @ 3:16am

      Re: So how do we organize?

      The good old fashioned way runners and word of mouth.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Oct 2020 @ 4:35pm

      Re: So how do we organize?

      We make ourselves police officers and get the same rights. That'll teach 'em!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 10 Oct 2020 @ 10:10pm

        There seems to be a recurring motif

        So, start a street gang?

        That's how the Sicilian Mafia got started.

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

        They started small.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 13 Oct 2020 @ 2:58am

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Uriel-238 (profile), 13 Oct 2020 @ 12:51pm

            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.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Oct 2020 @ 11:02am

    I wonder what those who donated were told about the charity, if it did not include purchasing hardware for on duty activities then this looks like a misappropriation of funds which may be a felony depending upon which state has standing.

    Even if the DA were to press charges, leos would probably get immunity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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