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‘Secret Law’ of Patriot Act: Geolocation Tracking & Domestic Spying on Steroids?

Jun 01, 20114 mins
Cellular NetworksData and Information SecurityEnterprise Applications

The ACLU filed a FOIA request with the DOJ to unmask the government's secret interpretation of the Patriot Act. Is the gov't using Patriot Act surveillance power to create mass mobile phone geolocation tracking databases which would stun and anger American citizens? Is software like TruePosition LOCINT part of the vast domestic spying arsenal?

It is with great irony that right after Congress and President Obama authorized a four-year extension of the Patriot Act, which steals our freedom, we celebrated Memorial Day to honor soldiers who fought and died to keep America free. Even more alarming is before the Patriot Act was reauthorized, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee tried to warn citizens that the power it grants the government to spy on its citizen is much more intense than we know. As if the Patriot Act does not grant the government enough surveillance power, we found out the “secret law” pushes the gap even wider between what domestic spying we think the Patriot Act allows and what the government secretly thinks it allows. Senator Mark Udall said, “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”

Stunned and angry? As in when the NSA was illegally wiretapping without warrants like domestic spying on steroids? The ACLU intends to find out and filed a Freedom of Information Act request, demanding that the Justice Department release information explaining how the government uses and interprets Patriot Act Section 215. The ACLU says the FBI is aggressively using Section 215 and there is the “distinct possibility that the government is using the provision to support entire surveillance programs.”

Julian Sanchez for Cato @ Liberty reported that the Patriot Act’s Section 215 most likely includes unfettered government access to geolocation data from your smartphone. That might mean cell phone records for all of us that may be turned over in mass quantities by wireless phone service providers. The government may not use these mobile phone records only for electronic surveillance tracking of suspected terrorists, but also to track anyone to whom terrorists might be connected, and anyone those people might be connected to, and so on down the line of linking people to people to create vast domestic spying databases. Sanchez said that type of geolocation tracking might be accomplished with Location Intelligence (LocInt) services such as provided by TruePosition to national security, law enforcement and government agencies like DHS and Customs and Border Patrol.

The website for TruePosition claims its clients use the software for “historical archiving” of mobile phone geolocation info to detect relationships between people, locations and events in order to spot “suspicious behavior.” It tracks in real time and sends automatic notification if the user enters or leaves a specific preset criteria. TruePosition clients also use the software for “data mining, profiling, and analysis of location information and calling activities, via a user-friendly, map-based, graphical interface, to gather intelligence on mobile phone users based on criteria, such as users’ movement and calling activity.”

Could this be part of the how the government is secretly interpreting the Patriot Act’s surveillance power in what Senator Udall warned would make the American people stunned and angry? When you dig a bit deeper, key features of TruePosition LOCINT include:

  • Locates mobile phones of interest in real time with high accuracy – including idle phones (mobile phones not making a call or sending a message)
  • Builds invisible electronic virtual fences of any size
  • Develops authorized and barred lists of mobile phones
  • Archives location information for all phones in the network, allowing security officials to search and analyze the archived data for suspicious behavior patterns
  • Transparent to the mobile user and network
  • Scales from small to large networks
  • Offers the flexibility to create multiple levels of access and control
  • Supports multiple mobile network operators

We’ll have to wait and see if the ACLU’s FOIA request can remove the cloak of secrecy surrounding how the government believes it can spy on us, and what other possible electronic surveillance methods are used. It is shameful behavior spying on citizens as if we are guilty until proven innocent, shameful surveillance coming from the “Land of the Free.” As the ACLU said, “The secrecy surrounding the government’s use of new surveillance powers is unwarranted and fundamentally antidemocratic.”

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.