Again, let me start off with – this seems to be mostly legal – maybe on the edge, but no court has said that it is illegal.
Bartonville, Texas, population 1500, is the home of Hawk Analytics. One of a host of big data analytics firms, Hawk has specialized in taking cell phone metadata and making it useful.
The courts, are, for the most part, stuck in either 1973 or 1873, and have not quite figured out that cell phone metadata is incredibly useful, so they have set the bar very low in terms of what is required to get that data from the cell phone companies. It is also letting the cops decide how long they can keep it and how they use it.
Hawk can take a year’s worth of cell phone data and analyze it in 20 minutes.
What can they tell from that data?
Besides the obvious of where have you been if you are a person of interest, they can tell who you have been talking to and who they are talking to – a so-called social network graph. They can also tell, for example, who the most people are talking to – kind of the center of the universe.
Lets say that you are a social activist and you have a network of folks that you talk to. These are the folks that get people out to whatever – say demonstrate or picket. At the push of a button, they can see a visual representation of who everyone talks to, where those people go, over time, and where all the the people they talk to go. They can do this as many levels down as they want.
From the cops’ view point, they want to know where the interesting places are – why are people collecting in this one place, absent some obvious reason. Who are the key people in the social activism world and how to they spread their message. Even if what these people are doing is perfectly legal, they can “visit” these information distribution points and “discourage” them from participating. And of course, the same for the crooks. If they think that someone is a crook and they watch who that people talks to and who those people talk to, they may eventually get to someone they know or someone of interest. Then they work backward and see if you and that person ever show up in the same place at the same time. Big data analytics, which is designed specifically for that purpose, can reduce mounds of data in a few seconds.
Hawk’s software loves data. You have a year’s worth of data from one carrier? That’s good. A year’s worth of data from two carriers? Even better. Cell phone “tower dumps” from one request. Sure add that to it. Some data you got from three years ago? Add that to the mix.
The alternative for the cops is to use a Stingray. But Stingrays simulate one tower at one point in time. That is good, but a limited amount of data. and you have to have a known starting point like, say the center of a demonstration. What if you could get all of the data from say, a dozen towers, for say, 12 hours, for next to nothing from the carriers. That is a much richer dataset.
Likely you have no idea what you are going to find. Unlike a warrant where you have to convince a judge that the data that you need is in the data that you are asking the carrier for, in this case, you have a much lower bar. Probably the carriers will just give you the metadata if you ask for it.
In 2019 Verizon alone got 260,000 subpoenas, orders, warrants, and emergency requests from various U.S. law enforcement entities. If you can take that data, aggregate it over a wide geography and over years worth of requests, with absolutely no oversight……
Law enforcement agencies make up their own rules about how long they keep data and each agency is different. Sometimes they extend how long they are going to keep because some piece of data in that dataset aroused their curiosity.
Kind of like how the cops use Stingrays, they are not exactly forthcoming with how much data they have, how they use it, how long they keep it, etc.
Is it legal? So far it is. Credit: The Intercept