Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What the FBI Doesn't Want You To Know About Its "Secret" Surveillance Techniques

The FBI had to rewrite the book on its domestic surveillance activities in the wake of last January’s landmark Supreme Court decision in United States v. Jones. In Jones, a unanimous court held that federal agents must get a warrant to attach a GPS device to a car to track a suspect for long periods of time. But if you want to see the two memos describing how the FBI has reacted to Jones — and the new surveillance techniques the FBI is using beyond GPS trackers — you’re out of luck. The FBI says that information is “private and confidential.”
Yes, now that the Supreme Court ruled the government must get a warrant to use its previous go-to surveillance technique, it has now apparently decided that it’s easier to just keep everything secret. The ACLU requested the memos under the Freedom of Information Act — which you can see FBI General Counsel Andrew Weissmann waving around in public here — and the FBI redacted them almost entirely.
Though the FBI won’t release the memos, we do have some information from other sources on the surveillance techniques federal agents are already using. And for the most part the FBI contends they do not need a warrant, and one wonders, given the public nature of this information, why they are officially claiming its "secret."

Cell Phone Data Requests

Tellingly, in U.S. v. Jones, after the US government lost its case in the Supreme Court with the GPS device, it went right back to the district court and asserted it could get Jones’ cell phone site location data without a warrant. EFF has long argued cell location data, which can map your precise location for days or weeks at a time, is highly personal, and should require a warrant from a judge.
In July 2012, the New York Times reported that federal, state, and local law enforcement officials had requested all kinds of cell phone data, including mappings of suspects’ locations, a staggering 1.3 million times in the previous year. Worse, the real number was “almost certainly much higher" given they often request multiple people’s data with one request. The FBI also employs highly controversial “tower dumps” where they get the location information on everyone within a particular radius, potentially violating the privacy of thousands of innocent people with one request.

Stingray Interceptors

In late 2012, we reported on the secretive new device the FBI has been increasingly using for surveillance known as a IMSI catcher, or “Stingray.” A Stingray acts as a fake cell phone tower and locks onto all devices in a certain area to find a cell phone’s location, or perhaps even intercept phone calls and texts. Given it potentially sucks up thousands of innocent persons’ data, we called it an “unconstitutional, all you can eat data buffet.”
The FBI has gone to great lengths to keep this technology secret, even going as far as refusing to tell judges its full range of capabilities. Recently, documents obtained by EPIC Privacy through a FOIA request shed more light on the devices.

License Plate Readers

In cities across the country, local police departments and other law enforcement agencies are installing automated license plate readers that create databases of location information about individual cars (and their drivers). These readers can be mounted by the side of a busy road, scanning every car that rolls by, or on the dash of a police car, allowing officers to drive through and scan all the plates in a parking lot.
In Washington, D.C., nearly every block is captured by one of the more than 250 cameras scanning over 1,800 images per minute. In Los Angeles, more than two dozen different law enforcement agencies operate license plate readers to collect over 160 million data points. This surveillance is untargeted, recording the movements of any car passes by. In cities that have become partners in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, or have entered into another data-sharing agreement, this location information is at the fingertips of those federal agents.

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