Whisper Social Media App - November, 2014

The social media app Whisper, touted by co-founder and CEO Michael Heyward as the “safest place on the internet,” and a place “about a complete absence of identity,” tracks the location of users – even those who have opted out of the geolocation feature — according to a recent article in the Guardian.  The company also shares some information with the Department of Defense and law enforcement, and works closely with news organizations, e.g., Buzzfeed.

The app, which has millions of users, allows users to anonymously send short messages and images and is popular with military personnel, according to the article.  The company can monitor all geolocated messages from the Pentagon, National Security Agency, and Capitol Hill.   The data from users, even data the users believe deleted, is collected and collated in a searchable database and stored indefinitely.  The company uses the geolocation of users to assist in determining the veracity of the postings.

The article says one executive told the reporter that during the July war in Gaza, 13 or 14 Israeli Defense Force soldiers – and all of their “whispers” -- were tracked, and the company currently is following a user claiming to be a sex-obsessed lobbyist in Washington, DC.  “He’s a guy that we’ll track for the rest of his life and he’ll have no idea we’ll be watching him,” the executive was quoted as saying.

When users disable geolocation functions, the company utilizes the user’s IP to obtain an approximate location.  As the company informs its users in new privacy terms, “even if you have disabled location services, we may still determine your city, state, and country location.”

Messages – of which there may be more than 2 million per day -- are screened 24 hours a day by more than 100 of the company’s employees at a facility in the Philippines.

Sources:  Paul Lewis and Dominic Rushe, “Revealed: how Whisper app tracks ‘anonymous’ users,” http://theguardian.com, October 16, 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/16/-sp-revealed-whisper-app-tracking-users

Most Patriot Act Delayed-Notice Search
Warrants Unrelated to Terrorism

The report of the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts on Applications for delayed-Notice Search Warrants and Extensions for the fiscal year of October 1, 2012, to September 30, 2013, reveals that there were 6,480 delayed warrant requests and 4,649 requests for extensions, pursuant to Section 213 of the Patriot Act.  Of those 11,129 total requests, only 51 were related to terrorism investigations, and 9,401 were related to drug investigations.

The delayed-notice search warrants, also called “sneak and peek” warrants, allow law enforcement to search and seize information and items without notice to the suspect.  The period of delay-notice ranged from 1 day to 546 days, but 47% were delays of 90 days.

Law enforcement has in recent years greatly increased the use of delayed-notice warrants.  From September, 2001, to April, 2003, there were 47 requests by law enforcement for delayed-notice warrants and extensions.  From October 1, 2012, to September 30, 2013, there were 11,129.

Sources:  Mark Jaycox, “Peekaboo, I See You: Government Authority Intended for Terrorism is Used for Other Purposes,” eff.org, October 26, 2014: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2014/10/peekaboo-i-see-yougovernment-uses-authority-meant-terrorism-other-uses.  Related: https://www.eff.org/document/2013-delayed-notice-sneak-and-peekreport;https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/aousc_patriot_act_section_213_sneak_and_peek_report.pdf

Airborne Fake Cell-Towers

According to recent articles, initially reported by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Marshall’s Service is using airborne surveillance to capture cell-phone information.  Cessna aircraft, flying from five metropolitan areas, employ devices that mimic cellphone towers and thereby “trick” cellphones into sending the user’s registration information.  It is reported that data from “tens of thousands” of phones can be collected in s single flight.

Federal officials -- without confirming or denying the existence of the surveillance practice -- defended its legality.

Sources:  http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/11/13/secret-us-spy-program-targeted-americans-cell-phones/?intcmp=latestnews; http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/11/15/us-defends-marshals-in-wake-secret-cellphone-spying-report/

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor