Obscure tool allows police to track people without warrant
Law enforcement across the US has been using an affordable phone-tracking tool called Fog Reveal to monitor the movements of individuals suspected of a crime, often without search warrants.
An Associated Press report has revealed that police have been using the tool since at least 2018 to investigate crimes like the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. However, police rarely mention the use of the tool in court records, which is why it has remained relatively obscure until now, and also why defense attorneys find it difficult to defend a client in a case where it’s been used.
Developed by two Department of Homeland Security officials, Fog Reveal allows police to monitor people’s movements over several months in the past by utilizing location data from the records of over 250 million mobile devices. Fog Reveal purchases this data from advertising identification numbers on various popular cell phone apps that target ads to people based on their movements and interests, such as Starbucks. They use this data to establish what the police call “patterns of life.” With these ID numbers, they can easily figure out where a specific mobile device user lives and where they work.
Police forces have not been open about how they use the data that Fog Reveal provides. Vice has published the manual for Fog Reveal, which shows that the system greets users with a message that the data they can access is sensitive and “should be safeguarded.” Indeed, it provides information that police would usually need to subpoena such data from tech companies, a process that can take several weeks.
Fog Reveal denies identifying individuals is possible. However, the AP report suggests that with Fog Reveal, police can access “anonymized” data quickly, and from there, easily identify individual users with either geofencing or the aforementioned user IDs.
Privacy advocates are concerned that the tool’s use violates citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights, which protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Bennett Cyphers, a special adviser at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has described the tool as “a mass surveillance program on a budget.”
In other news
- New report shows increase in Russia-related takedown demands. The 2022 transparency report from Automattic shows in the last six months an increase in DMCA takedown demands over content critical of Russia and the Russian government, according to WPTavern. The sites targeted include those with content on fundraising for Ukraine, commentary from a historical perspective on the war in Ukraine, and accounts of Russian soldiers critical of the war in Ukraine. A spokesperson from WordPress.com made clear that they decided not to geoblock this content. The report also revealed that Colombia blocked Tumblr for months as they found a spam blog. Automattic is the parent company of WordPress.com and Tumblr.
- Apple replaces passwords with “passkeys.” With iOS 16 introduced this month and MacOS Ventura next month, Apple will bring in a new system of authentication, according to Wired. Passkeys will be used for iPhones, iPads, and Macs, allowing the user to log in and create new accounts without the need to remember a password. Instead, the passkey comprises a cryptographic key pair that is used across the iCloud keychain, and will potentially sync with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Meta. If you are new to an Apple device then you will be able to create a passkey, but where you already have an account, you will need to use the existing password.
- Scientists getting closer to a cure for blindness. Researchers at the Scripps Institute in California have found a way to revive eyes donated by deceased organ donors, according to the Wall Street Journal. This breakthrough means that scientists can begin experimenting with functioning retinas and further explore the chemistry of vision. Before now it has been possible to transplant corneas, but without the vital connection of the retinal neurons that send signals to the brain. More research is needed before eye transplants are possible, but the recent discoveries help in understanding abnormalities relating to human vision. This looks to be crucial progress against some of the main causes of blindness, such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.
- Fossil suggests teeth did not originate inside the mouth. Science Alert reports that the fossil of an extinct sawfish shows evidence that teeth evolved as external scales. This creature had external teeth for foraging and self-defense purposes, as sawfish and sawsharks do today. Experts have been divided on whether teeth began inside the mouth or not, but these findings support the external teeth theory, as it seems that teeth have evolved from scales. Let’s just be glad that humans evolved with teeth inside our mouths, or life might be one long horror movie.
- Large amounts of data could be exposed by errors in apps. This week Wired reported on research published by Broadcom’s Symantec Threat Hunter team that found an oversight in hundreds of apps could lead to data leaks. Hard-coded authentication details in the cloud services of these apps are only intended for a particular file or service, but they can be used to gain access to all files within that cloud service. Where the same company or software development kit (SDK) is used for different apps, the leaks could spread from one app to another. Broadcom has not named the apps affected by this vulnerability.
- China discovers new lunar mineral and plans 3 moon missions. Business Insider reports that Chinese scientists discovered a mineral they named Changesite-(Y) following the Chang’e 5 moon mission in 2020. China has subsequently received approval for three more missions over the next decade. The Global Times described the mineral as a “phosphate mineral in columnar crystal,” and it contains helium-3, which could be used as a source of energy. China has plans to build a research station in coordination with Russia at the moon’s south pole. NASA is also interested in moon mining in the same area, which could lead to a future conflict of interests.
- The next USB standard will be twice as fast. Version 2.0 for existing USB 4 connectors will increase the bandwidth from 40 Gbps to 80 Gbps, Engadget reveals. These USB-C cables can also be used with previous USB 4 cables and will still be able to deliver the same, improved speeds. The version 2.0 USB 4 cables will also come with a new physical layer architecture. We still don’t know when the new USB standard will be released, but it’s expected to be in the near future.
Tip of the week: Now is the time for GA4
Earlier this year, Google announced that Universal Analytics (UA) would be permanently replaced by Google Analytics 4 (GA4) on July 1, 2023. Until that day, users can continue to collect new data in Universal Analytics properties, but after, GA4 tracking will be required to collect any web traffic details through Analytics. The company has so far only promised that previous UA data will be available for six measly months after the switch. So if you are one of those people who like to compare year-over-year data (and we hope you are), now is the time to get GA4 installed on all your website.
Fortunately, GA4 is easy to install for most people. WordPress users, for example, can simply install the Google Site Kit plugin and use the wizard to create a GA4 property within an existing Google Analytics account. If you don’t have Analytics yet, signing up is free but will require a few extra verification steps.
Australia-based digital commerce experts at Clue have put together an extensive guide to GA4 that can get you going with almost any type of website setup. One of the best parts of GA4 is its ability to collect both website and app data in an integrated way to help you understand the customer journey better.