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Senators seek to rein in law enforcement’s cell phone tracking abilities

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The Associated Press reports that members of Congress are seeking to introduce legislation that would limit law enforcement agencies’ ability to buy cell phone tracking tools to follow people’s location.

Earlier this month, the AP reported on a tool known as “Fog Reveal” that police have used to search hundreds of billions of records from 250 million mobile devices.

“It’s sort of a mass surveillance program on a budget,” said Bennett Cyphers, a special adviser at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital privacy rights advocacy group. A recent investigation by EFF found that Fog Reveal allows its customers to “access detailed histories of regular people’s lives.”

Fog Reveal has been used by law enforcement since at least 2018; now, Congress is taking note. “Americans are increasingly aware that their privacy is evaporating before their eyes, and the real-world implications can be devastating. Today, companies we’ve all heard of as well as companies we’re completely unaware of are collecting troves of data about where we go, what we do, and who we are,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)

Fog Data Science LLC, the developer of Fog Reveal, disputes the negative characterizations of its product. “We fill a gap for underfunded and understaffed departments,” Matthew Broderick, a Fog managing partner, told the AP.

Since the extent of its data collection was brought to light, Fog Reveal has received criticism from both sides of the political aisle. “Fog Reveal is easily de-anonymized tracking of Americans’ daily movements and location histories. Where we go can say a lot about who we are, who we associate with, and even what we believe or how we worship,” said former Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who previously served as U.S. House Judiciary chairman. Goodlatte now works as a senior policy adviser to the Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability. “The current political climate means that this technology could be used against people left, right and center. Everyone has a stake in curbing this technology,” Goodlatte added.

Privacy groups are hoping that Congress takes action soon. “The lack of any meaningful regulation on the collection and sale of app data is both a consumer and privacy crisis,” Legal Aid Society staff attorney Benjamin Burger recently wrote. “Both federal and state governments need to develop policies that will protect consumer data.”

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