Tech instrument presents police ‘mass surveillance on a price range’


September 2, 2022 GMT

Native regulation enforcement companies from suburban Southern California to rural North Carolina have been utilizing an obscure cellphone monitoring instrument, at occasions with out search warrants, that offers them the ability to comply with individuals’s actions months again in time, in response to public data and inner emails obtained by The Related Press.

Police have used “Fog Reveal” to go looking lots of of billions of data from 250 million cell units, and harnessed the info to create location analyses recognized amongst regulation enforcement as “patterns of life,” in response to hundreds of pages of data in regards to the firm.

Offered by Virginia-based Fog Knowledge Science LLC, Fog Reveal has been used since a minimum of 2018 in legal investigations starting from the homicide of a nurse in Arkansas to tracing the actions of a possible participant within the Jan. 6 revolt on the Capitol. The instrument isn’t, if ever, talked about in court docket data, one thing that protection attorneys say makes it more durable for them to correctly defend their shoppers in circumstances during which the expertise was used.

The corporate was developed by two former high-ranking Division of Homeland Safety officers beneath former President George W. Bush. It depends on promoting identification numbers, which Fog officers say are culled from well-liked cellphone apps reminiscent of Waze, Starbucks and lots of of others that focus on advertisements primarily based on an individual’s actions and pursuits, in response to police emails. That info is then offered to firms like Fog.

“It’s form of a mass surveillance program on a price range,” stated Bennett Cyphers, a particular adviser on the Digital Frontier Basis, a digital privateness rights advocacy group.


This story, supported by the Pulitzer Middle on Disaster Reporting, is a part of an ongoing Related Press sequence, “Tracked,” that investigates the ability and penalties of selections pushed by algorithms on individuals’s on a regular basis lives.


The paperwork and emails had been obtained by EFF by way of Freedom of Info Act requests. The group shared the recordsdata with The AP, which independently discovered that Fog offered its software program in about 40 contracts to almost two dozen companies, in response to GovSpend, an organization that retains tabs on authorities spending. The data and AP’s reporting present the primary public account of the in depth use of Fog Reveal by native police, in response to analysts and authorized specialists who scrutinize such applied sciences.

Federal oversight of firms like Fog is an evolving authorized panorama. On Monday, the Federal Commerce Fee sued an information dealer known as Kochava that, like Fog, supplies its shoppers with promoting IDs that authorities say can simply be used to search out the place a cell system consumer lives, which violates guidelines the fee enforces. And there are payments earlier than Congress now that, if handed, would regulate the trade.

“Native regulation enforcement is on the entrance strains of trafficking and lacking individuals circumstances, but these departments are sometimes behind in expertise adoption,” Matthew Broderick, a Fog managing accomplice, stated in an electronic mail. “We fill a spot for underfunded and understaffed departments.”

Due to the secrecy surrounding Fog, nonetheless, there are scant particulars about its use and most regulation enforcement companies received’t focus on it, elevating considerations amongst privateness advocates that it violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects in opposition to unreasonable search and seizure.

What distinguishes Fog Reveal from different cellphone location applied sciences utilized by police is that it follows the units by way of their promoting IDs, distinctive numbers assigned to every system. These numbers don’t include the identify of the cellphone’s consumer, however will be traced to properties and workplaces to assist police set up pattern-of-life analyses.

“The aptitude that it had for citing simply anyone in an space whether or not they had been in public or at dwelling appeared to me to be a really clear violation of the Fourth Modification,” stated Davin Corridor, a former crime knowledge evaluation supervisor for the Greensboro, North Carolina, Police Division. “I simply really feel indignant and betrayed and lied to.”

Corridor resigned in late 2020 after months of voicing considerations in regards to the division’s use of Fog to police attorneys and the town council.

Whereas Greensboro officers acknowledged Fog’s use and initially defended it, the police division stated it allowed its subscription to run out earlier this yr as a result of it didn’t “independently profit investigations.”

However federal, state and native police companies across the U.S. proceed to make use of Fog with little or no public accountability. Native police companies have been enticed by Fog’s inexpensive worth: It could actually begin as little as $7,500 a yr. And a few departments that license it have shared entry with different close by regulation enforcement companies, the emails present.

Police departments additionally like how rapidly they will entry detailed location info from Fog. Geofence warrants, which faucet into GPS and different sources to trace a tool, are accessed by acquiring such knowledge from firms, like Google or Apple. This requires police to acquire a warrant and ask the tech firms for the particular knowledge they need, which may take days or perhaps weeks.

Utilizing Fog’s knowledge, which the corporate claims is anonymized, police can geofence an space or search by a particular system’s advert ID numbers, in response to a consumer settlement obtained by AP. However, Fog maintains that “we now have no approach of linking alerts again to a particular system or proprietor,” in response to a gross sales consultant who emailed the California Freeway Patrol in 2018, after a lieutenant requested whether or not the instrument might be legally used.

Regardless of such privateness assurances, the data present that regulation enforcement can use Fog’s knowledge as a clue to search out figuring out info. “There isn’t a (private info) linked to the (advert ID),” wrote a Missouri official about Fog in 2019. “But when we’re good at what we do, we should always be capable to work out the proprietor.”

Fog’s Broderick stated in an electronic mail that the corporate doesn’t have entry to individuals’s private info, and attracts from “commercially out there knowledge with out restrictions to make use of,” from knowledge brokers “that legitimately buy knowledge from apps in accordance with their authorized agreements.” The corporate refused to share details about what number of police companies it really works with.

“We’re assured Legislation Enforcement has the accountable management, constraints, and political steerage on the municipal, state, and federal stage to make sure that any regulation enforcement instrument and methodology is appropriately utilized in accordance with the legal guidelines of their respective jurisdictions,” Broderick stated within the electronic mail.

“Search warrants are usually not required for using the general public knowledge,” he added Thursday, saying that the info his product presents regulation enforcement is “lead knowledge” and shouldn’t be used to ascertain possible trigger.


Kevin Metcalf, a prosecutor in Washington County, Arkansas, stated he has used Fog Reveal and not using a warrant, particularly in “exigent circumstances.” In these circumstances, the regulation supplies a warrant exemption when a crime-in-process endangers individuals or an officer.

Metcalf additionally leads the Nationwide Little one Safety Job Pressure, a nonprofit that combats youngster exploitation and trafficking. Fog is listed on its website as a process drive sponsor and an organization govt chairs the nonprofit’s board. Metcalf stated Fog has been invaluable to cracking lacking youngsters circumstances and homicides.

“We push the bounds, however we do them in a approach that we goal the dangerous guys,” he stated. “Time is of the essence in these conditions. We are able to’t wait on the normal search warrant route.”

Fog was used efficiently within the homicide case of 25-year-old nurse Sydney Sutherland, who had final been seen jogging close to Newport, Arkansas, earlier than she disappeared, Metcalf stated.

Police had little proof to go on after they discovered her cellphone in a ditch, so Metcalf stated he shared his company’s entry to Fog with the U.S. Marshals Service to determine which different units had been close by on the time she was killed. He stated Fog helped lead authorities to arrest a farmer in Sutherland’s rape and homicide in August 2020, however its use was not documented in court docket data reviewed by AP.

Cyphers, who led EFF’s public data work, stated there hasn’t been any earlier report of firms promoting this type of granular knowledge on to native regulation enforcement.

“We’re seeing counties with lower than 100,000 individuals the place the sheriff is utilizing this extraordinarily excessive tech, extraordinarily invasive, secretive surveillance instrument to chase down native crime,” Cyphers stated.

One such buyer is the sheriff’s workplace in rural Rockingham County, North Carolina, inhabitants 91,000 and simply north of Greensboro, the place Corridor nonetheless lives. The county purchased a one-year license for $9,000 final yr and not too long ago renewed it.

“Rockingham County is tiny when it comes to inhabitants. It by no means ceases to amaze me how small companies will scoop up instruments that they only completely don’t want, and no person wants this one,” Corridor stated.

Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Kevin Suthard confirmed the division not too long ago renewed its license however declined to supply specifics about using Fog Reveal or how the workplace protects people’ rights.

“As a result of it will then be much less efficient as criminals might be cognizant that we now have the system and regulate their fee of the crimes accordingly. Make sense?” Suthard stated.

Fog has aggressively marketed its instrument to police, even beta testing it with regulation enforcement, data present. The Dallas Police Division purchased a Fog license in February after getting a free trial and “seeing an indication and listening to of success tales from the corporate,” Senior Cpl. Melinda Gutierrez, a division spokeswoman, stated in an electronic mail.

Fog’s instrument is accessed by way of an online portal. Investigators can enter a criminal offense scene’s coordinates into the database, which brings again search outcomes displaying a tool’s Fog ID, which relies on its distinctive advert ID quantity.

Police can see which system IDs had been discovered close to the situation of the crime. Detectives or different officers can even search the situation for IDs going ahead from the time of the crime and again a minimum of 180 days, in response to the corporate’s consumer license settlement.

The emails and Fog’s Broderick contend the instrument can truly search again years, nonetheless. Emails from a Fog consultant to Florida and California regulation enforcement companies stated the instrument’s knowledge stretched again so far as June 2017. On Thursday Broderick, who had beforehand refused to deal with the query, stated it “solely has a 3 yr attain again.”

Whereas the info doesn’t immediately establish who owns a tool, the corporate usually offers regulation enforcement info it wants to attach it to addresses and different clues that assist detectives work out individuals’s identities, in response to firm representatives’ emails.

It’s unclear how Fog makes these connections, however an organization it refers to as its “knowledge accomplice” known as Venntel, Inc. has entry to a good better trove of customers’ cell knowledge.

Venntel is a big dealer that has provided location knowledge to companies reminiscent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI. The Division of Homeland Safety’s watchdog is auditing how the workplaces beneath its management have used industrial knowledge. That comes after some Democratic lawmakers requested it to analyze U.S. Customs and Border Safety’s use of Venntel knowledge to trace individuals and not using a search warrant in 2020. The corporate additionally has confronted congressional inquiries about privateness considerations tied to federal regulation enforcement companies’ use of its knowledge.

Venntel and Fog work intently collectively to assist police detectives throughout investigations, emails present. Their advertising brochures are practically an identical, too, and Venntel workers has really useful Fog to regulation enforcement, in response to the emails. Venntel stated “the confidential nature of our enterprise relationships” prevented it from responding to AP’s particular questions, and Fog wouldn’t touch upon the connection.

Whereas Fog says in its advertising supplies that it collects knowledge from hundreds of apps, like Starbucks and Waze, firms are usually not at all times conscious of who’s utilizing their knowledge. Venntel and Fog can gather billions of knowledge factors stuffed with detailed info as a result of many apps embed invisible monitoring software program that follows customers’ habits. This software program additionally lets the apps promote personalized advertisements which are focused to an individual’s present location. In flip, knowledge brokers’ software program can hoover up private knowledge that can be utilized for different functions.

Previous to publication, Fog’s Broderick refused to say how the corporate obtained knowledge from Starbucks and Waze. However on Thursday, he stated he didn’t understand how knowledge aggregators collected the data Fog Reveal attracts from, or the particular apps from which the info was drawn.

For his or her half, Starbucks and Waze denied any relationship to Fog. Starbucks stated it had not given permission to its enterprise companions to share buyer info with Fog.

“Starbucks has not authorized Advert ID knowledge generated by our app for use on this approach by Fog Knowledge Science LLC. In our evaluate up to now, we now have no relationship with this firm,” stated Megan Adams, a Starbucks spokesperson.

“We’ve by no means had a relationship with Fog Knowledge Science, haven’t labored with them in any capability, and haven’t shared info with them,” a Waze spokesperson stated.


Fog Knowledge Science LLC is headquartered in a nondescript brick constructing in Leesburg, Virginia. It additionally has associated entities in New Jersey, Ohio and Texas.

It was based in 2016 by Robert Liscouski, who led the Division of Homeland Safety’s Nationwide Cyber Safety Division within the George W. Bush adminstration. His colleague, Broderick, is a former U.S. Marine brigadier normal who ran DHS’ tech hub, the Homeland Safety Operations Middle, throughout Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A Home bipartisan committee report cited Broderick amongst others for failing to coordinate a swift federal response to the lethal hurricane. Broderick resigned from DHS shortly thereafter.

In advertising supplies, Fog additionally has touted its potential to supply police “predictive analytics,” a buzzword usually used to explain high-tech policing instruments that purport to foretell crime hotspots. Liscouski and one other Fog official have labored at firms centered on predictive analytics, machine studying and software program platforms supporting synthetic intelligence.

“It’s able to delivering each forensic and predictive analytics and close to real-time insights on the day by day actions of the individuals recognized with these cell units,” reads an electronic mail saying a Fog coaching final yr for members of the Nationwide Fusion Middle Affiliation, which represents a community of intelligence-sharing partnerships created after the Sept. 11 assaults.

Fog’s Broderick stated the corporate had not invested in predictive purposes, and offered no particulars about any makes use of the instrument had for predicting crime.

Regardless of privateness advocates’ considerations about warrantless surveillance, Fog Reveal has caught on with native and state police forces. It’s been utilized in a variety of high-profile legal circumstances, together with one which was the topic of the tv program “48 Hours.”

In 2017, a world-renowned unique snake breeder was discovered useless, mendacity in a pool of blood in his reptile breeding facility in rural Missouri. Police initially thought the breeder, Ben Renick, may need died from a toxic snake chew. However the proof quickly pointed to homicide.

Throughout its investigation, emails present the Missouri State Freeway Patrol used Fog’s portal to seek for cellphones at Renick’s dwelling and breeding facility and zeroed in on a cell system. Working with Fog, investigators used the info to establish the cellphone proprietor’s id: it was the Renicks’ babysitter.

Police had been capable of log the babysitter’s whereabouts over time to create a sample of life evaluation.

It turned out to be a dead-end lead. Renick’s spouse, Lynlee, later was charged and convicted of the homicide.

Prosecutors didn’t cite Fog in an inventory of different instruments they used within the investigation, in response to trial reveals examined by the AP.

However Missouri officers appeared happy with Fog’s capabilities, despite the fact that it didn’t immediately result in an arrest. “It was fascinating to see that the system did choose up a tool that was completely within the space that day. Too dangerous it didn’t belong to a suspect!” a Missouri State Freeway Patrol analyst wrote in an electronic mail to Fog.

In one other high-profile legal probe, data present the FBI requested state intelligence officers in Iowa for assist with Fog because it investigated potential members within the occasions on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

“Not definitive however nonetheless ready to speak issues over with a FOG rep,” wrote Justin Parker, deputy director of the Iowa Division of Public Security, in an electronic mail to an FBI official in September 2021. It was unclear from the emails if Fog’s knowledge factored into an arrest. Iowa officers didn’t reply and the FBI declined to remark.


Metcalf, the Arkansas prosecutor, has argued in opposition to congressional efforts to require search warrants when utilizing applied sciences like Fog Reveal.

He believes People have given up any affordable expectation of privateness after they use free apps and likens EFF’s objections to tech like Fog to a “cult of privateness.”

“I feel individuals are going to must decide on whether or not we would like all this free expertise, we would like all this free stuff, we would like all of the selfies,” he stated. “However we will’t have that and on the identical time say, ‘I’m a non-public particular person, so you’ll be able to’t take a look at any of that.’ That simply appears loopy.”

Though he isn’t an official Fog worker, Metcalf stated he would step in to steer coaching classes together with the instrument for federal prosecutors, federal companies and police, together with the Chicago Police Division, the emails present.

That type of hands-on service and word-of-mouth advertising in tight-knit regulation enforcement circles appears to have helped enhance Fog’s reputation.

The Maryland State Police is among the many many companies which have had contracts for Fog Reveal, and data present investigators believed it had numerous potential.

“Corporations have receptors throughout. Malls, purchasing facilities, and so on. They’re throughout you,” wrote Sgt. John Bedell of the Felony Enforcement Division, in an electronic mail to a colleague. The company bought a yr of entry to Fog in 2018.

“Image getting a suspect’s cellphone then within the extraction with the ability to see everyplace they’d been within the final 18 months plotted on a map you filter by date ranges,” wrote Bedell. “The success lies within the secrecy.”

Elena Russo, a spokesperson for the company, confirmed it had a Fog license beforehand however that it had lapsed. “Sadly, it was not useful in fixing any crimes,” she wrote in an electronic mail.

Nonetheless, as extra native policing companies join Fog, some elected officers stated they’ve been left in the dead of night. A number of officers stated there wasn’t sufficient info to know what companies Fog truly supplies.

“Who is that this firm? What are the monitor data? What are the privateness protections?” requested Anaheim council member Jose Moreno, remembering his confusion about Fog throughout a 2020 council assembly. “That evening our chief had little or no info for us.”

In Anaheim, the Fog license was paid for by a federal “City Space Safety Initiative,” DHS grants that assist localities fund efforts to stop terrorism. A police spokesman stated the division has not used it.

Protection attorneys fear there are few authorized restrictions on regulation enforcement’s use of location knowledge.

It’s a spot police companies exploit, and sometimes don’t disclose in court docket, stated Michael Value, litigation director of the Nationwide Affiliation of Felony Protection Legal professionals’ Fourth Modification Middle.

“(Fog) is exceedingly uncommon to see within the wild as a result of the cops usually don’t get warrants,” stated Value.

“Even in the event you do ask for (info) generally they are saying ‘We don’t know what you might be speaking about.’”

Privateness advocates fear Fog’s location monitoring might be put to different novel makes use of, like conserving tabs on individuals who search abortions in states the place it’s now unlawful. These considerations had been heightened when a Nebraska lady was charged in August with serving to her teenage daughter finish a being pregnant after investigators obtained maintain of their Fb messages.

Authorities’s use of location knowledge continues to be being weighed by the courts, too. In 2018, the Supreme Court docket dominated that police usually want a warrant to have a look at data that reveal the place cellphone customers have been.

Almost two years after strolling off the crime knowledge supervisor job with the Greensboro police drive, Corridor nonetheless worries about police surveillance in neighboring communities.

“Anybody with that login info can do as many searches as they need,” Corridor stated. “I don’t imagine the police have earned the belief to make use of that, and I don’t imagine it must be authorized.”


AP Nationwide Author Allen G. Breed contributed from Greensboro, North Carolina. Dearen reported from New York and Burke reported from San Francisco.


This reporting was produced in collaboration with researchers Janine Graham, Nicole Waddick and Jane Yang in addition to the College of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Middle Investigations Lab and College of Legislation.


Observe Garance Burke and Jason Dearen on Twitter at @garanceburke and @jhdearen. Contact AP’s international investigative staff at [email protected] or