Local Police Capture Cell-Phone Data - July, 2014

Police in Florida and in Oakland County, Michigan, are two of the law enforcement entities using modern technology able to capture wireless data.  The devices trick cell-phones into connecting with it, rather than with a cell-tower, thereby allowing police to track the phone location and to intercept calls and texts.  The devices, which leave no trace when used, can -- among other things -- identify all cellphones within a targeted area and determine what numbers are called.

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Department has a Hailstorm device, the only such device currently being used in Michigan, according to a recent article.  The device is thought to be a technological upgrade of a device called Stingray, which has been in use by some law enforcement agencies for several years.  The $170,000.00 device was purchased from Florida-based Harris Corporation by means of a U.S. Homeland Security grant and is contained within a specially-purchased vehicle.  In Florida, a recent court case revealed that police in Tallahassee used a Stingray device, without a warrant, 200 times since 2010.  Warrants were not sought because police did not want to reveal information about the technology.

Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe was quoted in a recent article as saying that a warrant is required for use of the Hailstorm device, and said it is “not a tool to spy on people, unequivocally,” and it ”does not record cellphone conversations [or] capture personal information on anyone or store unintended target data.  It does not take photos of anyone.  It doesn’t take videos or fly in the sky.  It’s a tool used for criminal investigations and it’s legal and lawful.”

Legislation may be introduced by State Representative Tom McMillin to prohibit use of the devices without a warrant, and to make abuse of the technology a misdemeanor.

Sources:  Joel Kurth and Lauren Abdel-Razzaq, “Secret military device lets Oakland deputies track cellphones,” detnews.com, April 4, 2014:  http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140404/SPECIAL/304040043.  William Patrick, watchdog.org, “Spy game: Local police tap cell phones,” March 6, 2014:  http://watchdog.org/131254/local -police-spy/.  Related:  John Kelly, “Cellphone data spying: It’s not just the NSA,” usatoday.com, December 8, 2013:  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/12/08/cellphone-data-spying-nsa-police/3902809/

Private Drones Can Hack Phones and
Capture Data

A drone developed by hackers and that can capture wireless data from cellphones has been tested in London.  A test for CNN Money in March, 2014, revealed that in less than one hour the drone captured network names and GPS coordinates for 150 mobile devices.  The drone also was able to capture usernames and passwords for Amazon, PayPal and Yahoo test-accounts, which had been created for the purpose of testing the drone’s capabilities.

The article suggests that cellphone users can protect their data by shutting off Wi-Fi connections, and requiring the device to ask before it connects to a network.

Source:  Erica Fink, “This drone can steal what’s on your phone,” money.cnn.com, March 20, 2014:  http://money.cnn.com/2014/03/20/technology/security/drone-phone/

Study Shows Metadata Does
Reveal Personal Details

Two graduate students at Stanford University recently completed a study examining what information could be revealed and collected through cellphone and Internet metadata.  Among the findings from the information, gathered from 546 student volunteers, were details about such things as “family political, professional, religious and sexual associations,” and, according to computer scientist Jonathan Mayer, “Phone metadata is unambiguously sensitive, even over a small sample and short time window.  We were able to infer medical conditions, firearm ownership and more, using solely phone metadata.”

The researchers called 33,688 unique numbers, from which, in 18% of the calls, they were able to positively identify a specific individual.

Sources:  Giuseppe Macri, “New study shows NSA phone metadata can reveal EVERYTHING about your life,” dailycaller.com, March 13, 2014:  http://dailycaller.com/2014/03/13/new-study-shows-nsa-phone-metadata-can-reveal-everything-about-your-life/.  Jonathan Mayer and Patrick Mutchler, “Metaphone:  The Sensitivity of Telephone Metadata,” webpolicy.org, March 12, 2014:   http://webpolicy.org/2014/03/12/metaphone-the-sensitivity-of-telephone-metadata/

NSA Collects Hundreds of Millions of
Texts Daily

According to a report in the Guardian, the NSA collects daily an average of 194 million texts, and extracts information about “location, contact networks and credit card details,” as well as travel itineraries.

Source:  James Ball, “NSA collects millions of text messages daily in ‘untargeted’ global sweep,” guardian.com, January 16, 2014:  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/16/nsa-collects-millions-text-messages-daily-untargeted-global-sweep/print

Reading Brain Scans for Identity

An article published in March, 2014, in NeuroImage, describes a recent study where scientists using Functional Magnetic Brain Imaging (“fMRI”) were able to create images of faces that test subjects were viewing.

One of the researchers, Alan S. Cowen, a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley, said that the constructed images approximated the real image.  All of the tests got the subject’s skin color correct, and 24 out of 30 of the created-images accurately reflected a smile; two-thirds of the created-images correctly reflected gender, but only about one-half correctly re-constructed hair color.

Mr. Cowan said that as the technology improves it will help in understanding mental disorders, recording dreams, and solving crimes.  “And you can even imagine, way down the road, a witness to a crime might want to come in and reconstruct a suspect’s face,” he said.

Sources:  http://www.foxnews.com/science/2014/03/28/know-what-youre-thinking-scientists-find-way-to-read-minds/print#  Related:  CDN 34, No. 1 p. 12 (Brain Scans Offer Predictive Tool); CDN, 33, No. 7, p. 26 (Functional Magnetic Brain Imaging); CDN  31, No. 12 - 32, No. 1, p. 10 (Indian brain-scan technology used in criminal trial to get conviction).

Webcam Spying on Yahoo Users in UK

A recent report in The Guardian says that the Government Communications Headquarters (“GCHQ”), with assistance from the NSA, in a program called Optic Nerve, intercepted and collected webcam images of millions of users, whether or not the user was suspected of any criminal activity.  The article reports that in one 6-month period in 2008, for example, webcam images, including sexually explicit material, was collected globally from over 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts.  The system would collect one still-image every five minutes.

The Optic Nerve system was developed to experiment in facial recognition technology, to monitor existing suspects, and to find “new targets of interest.” the article reported that between “3% and 11% of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested by GCHQ contains "undesirable nudity".”

Source:  Spencer Ackerman and James Ball, “Optic Nerve: millions of Yahoo webcam images intercepted by GCHQ,” theguardian.com, February 27, 2014:  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/27/gchq-nsa-webcam-images-internet-yahoo.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor