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US Marshals case puts spotlight on police cellphone tracking

The cellphone tracking software a federal agent allegedly used to trace a former girlfriend could have been scuttled, however analysts say they concern police have much more invasive technology at their fingertips now.

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 trace individuals with whom he had “personal relationships,” violating the intent of the software, which was for use by cops engaged in official business.

The conduct that earned Mr. Pena scrutiny got here in 2016 and 2017, and Securus says it shut down the LBS platform, which relied on cellphone pinging, 4 years in the past.

But Aaron Mackey on the Electronic Frontier Foundation says it’s probably that cops have discovered extra exact instruments that use GPS or WiFi areas.

“The demand for location data and the potential abuse by law enforcement agencies in their ability to collect it and their desire to get access to it hasn’t changed. What’s changed is the technical way they’re acquiring it,” Mr. Mackey  mentioned.

According to an indictment, Mr. Pena used the software to trace no less than 9 individuals he wasn’t licensed to trace. When investigators regarded into the matter in 2017, they repeatedly queried him on whether or not he’d used the software on ex-girlfriends.

He denied abusing the software, however prosecutors say he was mendacity.

Mr. Pena gained entry to the platform as a part of a process pressure the Marshals Service ran with the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Office, which had a contract with Securus Technologies for its Location-Based Services platform.

LBS relied on information bought straight from telecommunications companies, delivering latitude and longitude coordinates for a telephone’s whereabouts.

The means of police to trace somebody via a telephone is deeply controversial, even with out the system being abused by dangerous actors. But the relative ease of duping the system raised new questions.

According to courtroom paperwork, Securus LBS solely required somebody to log in, choose their goal, add a doc justifying the search, then clock some buttons and get the cell location, in response to courtroom paperwork. And it turned out importing junk paperwork labored simply fantastic to clear that hurdle.

The actions prosecutors attribute to Mr. Pena got here in 2016 and 2017, however weren’t charged till now. It’s not clear why prosecutors waited so lengthy, given courtroom paperwork present investigators interviewed Mr. Pena in late 2017 and suspected he was mendacity on the time.

During that point, federal prosecutors received a conviction in opposition to a Missouri sheriff who had used Securus’ LBS platform to trace lots of of individuals, together with a state choose.

Securus final week mentioned it shut the software down years in the past.

“The tool was engineered with safeguards and security protocols, but we also relied on the integrity of law enforcement to operate it ethically,” the company mentioned in a press release. “All of this preceded our aggressive, multi-year transformation, and we wouldn’t and won’t provide the service ever again, period.”

The nation’s main cell service suppliers additionally say they’ve stopped promoting the underlying information.

But different strategies of tracking individuals by smartphone exist.

Private distributors have collected location information from apps individuals run, and Motherboard has reported that a number of federal businesses together with the IRS and Customs and Border Protection have gotten entry to a few of that information.

The authorized framework for businesses accessing the information with out a warrant is a part of the continuing debate, too.

Analysts say that whereas the technology and coverage are worrying sufficient, the system Securus arrange allowed the abuses which have come to mild.

“No one was checking this,” mentioned Mr. Mackey, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “There was no audit, either by Securus or the law enforcement agencies that had a contract with Securus.”

The Uvalde County Sheriff’s Office, which had the contract prosecutors say lined Mr. Pena and his looking out, didn’t reply to a request for remark.

The U.S. Marshals Service didn’t answer questions on steps taken to forestall this sort of abuse sooner or later, as a substitute focusing on Mr. Pena as a nasty actor.

“The alleged actions of this employee do not reflect the core values of the U.S. Marshals Service, and Pena has been relieved of his operational duties and placed on administrative leave,” the company mentioned. “An indictment is merely an allegation, and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.”

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