US Marshals case sheds light on police cellphone tracking

The cellphone tracking tool a federal agent allegedly used to track a former girlfriend may have been scuttled, but analysts say they fear police have even more technology at their fingertips. invasive.

Adrian O. Pena, a deputy U.S. marshal in Texas, was indicted this month by prosecutors who say he used Securus Technologies’ LBS platform to track people he had “personal relationships” with, violating the intent of the tool, which was to be used by cops engaged in official business.

The conduct that earned Mr Pena scrutiny took place in 2016 and 2017, and Securus says it shut down the LBS platform, which relied on pinging cellphones, four years ago.

But Aaron Mackey of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says it’s likely cops have found more accurate tools that use GPS or WiFi locations.

“The demand for location data and the potential abuse by law enforcement of their ability to collect it and their desire to have access to it has not changed. What has changed is the technical way they acquire it,” Mr Mackey said.

According to an indictment, Mr Pena used the tool to track at least nine people he was not authorized to track. When investigators looked into the case in 2017, they repeatedly questioned him about whether he had used the tool on ex-girlfriends.

He denied abusing the tool, but prosecutors say he was lying.

Mr. Pena gained access to the platform as part of a task force the US Marshals Service was leading with the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Office, which had a contract with Securus Technologies for its platform. location-based services.

LBS relied on data purchased directly from telecommunications companies, providing latitude and longitude coordinates for locating a phone.

The ability of police to track someone via phone is deeply controversial, even without the system being abused by bad actors. But the relative ease of tricking the system has raised new questions.

According to court documents, Securus LBS only required someone to log in, choose their target, upload a document justifying the search, then clock a few buttons and get the location of the cell, according to court documents. And it turned out that downloading unwanted documents worked really well to clear that hurdle.

The actions that prosecutors attribute to Mr. Pena took place in 2016 and 2017, but have not been charged so far. It’s unclear why prosecutors waited so long, given that court documents show investigators interviewed Mr Pena in late 2017 and suspected he was lying at the time.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors secured a conviction against a Missouri sheriff who used Securus’ LBS platform to track hundreds of people, including a state judge.

Securus said last week that it shut down the tool years ago.

“The tool was designed with safeguards and security protocols, but we also relied on the integrity of law enforcement to operate it ethically,” the company said in a statement. “All of this preceded our aggressive transformation over several years, and we would not and will never provide the service again, period.”

The country’s major cellular service providers also say they have stopped selling the underlying data.

But other methods of tracking people by smartphone exist.

Private vendors have collected location data from apps people use, and Motherboard reported that several federal agencies, including the IRS and Customs and Border Protection, have had access to some of this data.

The legal framework for agencies accessing data without a warrant is also part of the ongoing debate.

Analysts say that if the technology and politics are worrying enough, the system Securus put in place enabled the abuses that have come to light.

“Nobody was checking that,” said Mr. Mackey, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “There was no audit, either by Securus or by law enforcement who had a contract with Securus.”

The Uvalde County Sheriff’s Office, which contract prosecutors said covered Mr. Pena and his search, did not respond to a request for comment.

The US Marshals Service did not respond to questions about steps taken to prevent this type of abuse in the future, instead focusing on Mr Pena as a bad actor.

“This employee’s alleged actions do not reflect the core values ​​of the U.S. Marshals Service, and Pena has been removed from operational duties and placed on administrative leave,” the agency said. “An indictment is only an allegation, and the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a court.”

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