When government agencies violate the law they are meant to uphold, this raises serious concerns about the safety of the people they are supposed to protect. This is the case with Fog Data Science and its data-selling business with law enforcement agencies.
Some people might be tracking you and making money off of your location data. More interestingly, government agencies are in on it. What is Fog Data Science, how are they violating your privacy, and how can you stop them?
What Is Fog Data Science?
Fog Data Science (FDS) is a US-based organization that buys the location data of Americans and sells this information to law enforcement agencies at all levels. As people go about their daily businesses, the various applications on their smartphones and other mobile devices collect geolocation data. Fog Data Science retrieves this data and sells it to interested parties without the consent or permission of the owners.
How Does Fog Data Science Work?
Mobile technology applications have geolocation trackers that can identify users’ locations. These applications leverage geofencing to generate real-time data about your whereabouts. Such information is usually available to data brokers and advertising companies who want to tailor their marketing campaigns to people based on their locations. This explains why you receive promotions about goods and services in your area.
But the dynamics are different with Fog Data Science. The company doesn’t retrieve users’ geolocation data for marketing or advertising purposes, but to sell it to law enforcement agencies, US intelligence bodies, and corporate security departments who use it for their work. These organizations use the data they collect from FDS to conduct investigations and solve criminal cases.
Documents published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reveal that Fog Data Science has access to billions of user data points they retrieve from millions of active devices in the US. The company has a data-processing system that collects 15 billion location signals of 250 million devices daily. It uses a series of technology devices to organize, analyze and validate the data for meaningful interpretations and then offer it to law enforcement agencies at a subscription fee.
Are Fog Data Science’s Services Legal?
Ever since the activities of Fog Data Science’s services came to light, there have been conversations about their legal and ethical implications. The Privacy Act of 1974 upholds the confidentiality of U.S. citizens’ data. It prohibits government agencies from sharing people’s data without their consent. Law enforcement using data collected without users’ content raises concerns about privacy violations.
According to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, law enforcement officers don’t have the right to search people indiscriminately or seize their property without a warrant, especially when such activities violate the individual’s “reasonable expectation of privacy”.
The Fourth Amendment was enacted before the advent of digital technology. With digital technology being a major player in how people generate and share data nowadays, there are questions about how the Fourth Amendment applies to it.
During the Riley versus California case in 2014, the Supreme Court while interpreting the Fourth Amendment stated that the search-incident-to-arrest did not apply to people’s cell phones. In a traditional search-incident-to-arrest situation, law enforcement personnel don’t need a warrant to search items on a person they are arresting. And that’s because these officers need to protect themselves. Part of doing that is to ascertain that the person they are arresting doesn’t have any weapons or harmful objects they could use to harm them.
But the search-incident-to-arrest doesn’t apply to cell phones and other digital devices because any information on these devices doesn’t pose any harm to law enforcement officers during an arrest. So, they have no right to check people’s devices during arrests without a warrant.
During the Carpenter versus United States case in 2018, the Supreme Court established that law enforcement had no right to track or retrieve users’ location data on their digital devices from their network providers or any other parties without a warrant. Doing that violates people’s privacy because the places they visit are a part of their personal lives.
Some law enforcement agencies who patronize Fog Data Science argue that they obtain a warrant before accessing people’s location data on their mobile devices. But the Fourth Amendment kicks against any general and non-specific search covering multiple people in a particular area to retrieve their location data. Even when law enforcement has a warrant, such a warrant is void because it violates the privacy of the people in that location.
From the courts’ standing, it’s clear that the activities of Fog Data Science and the law enforcement agencies who use their services are suspect.
3 Ways to Protect Your Data From Fog Data Science
If you are a resident in the US, there’s no particular way for you to know if Fog Data Science is retrieving your data and selling it to law enforcement, especially as they don’t ask you for your data directly. Nonetheless, there are measures you can take to stop your phone from being tracked and prevent Fog Data Science from accessing your location data.
1. Limit the Number of Applications on Your Phone
Fog Data Science collects user data from third-party applications on mobile devices, especially smartphones. The more applications you use on your device, the more you allow them to collect your data.
Apps can enhance the user experience, so maybe you don’t want to stop using them completely. However, you can minimize app usage by installing only the ones you really need and deleting non-active ones. For every non-active app you delete, you close a window a third party could use to retrieve your data.
2. Disable Location-Based Services
Location-based services refer to digital platforms that use people’s real-time location data to render various kinds of services. They operate on the Global Positioning System (GPS), a satellite-based technology that transmits signals to identify the location of people and things. When you activate location-based services, you give the service providers the right to track your location. And in turn, they could sell your location data to companies like Fog Data Science. Turning off these services restricts them from collecting your data.
3. Disable Ad-Tracking
Mobile applications have ad trackers that trail your online interactions to serve you custom ads. You may have noticed that, when you look for certain information or item on search engines, you begin to receive adverts about it shortly after. The same thing happens when you engage with a particular post on social media.
The activities of Fog Data Science have shown that ad trackers don’t use the data they collect for only advertising purposes. These agencies avail your data to the likes of Fog Data Science who process and sell it to law enforcement. You can stop advertisers from tracking you by disabling ad-tracking on your smartphone and other mobile devices to deny them access to your data.
Secure Your Data With Device User Controls
Despite the privacy regulations in place to stop the collection and use of people’s data without their consent, some people and organizations still do it illegitimately. Instead of completely relying on the authorities to secure your data, secure it by utilizing the controls on your devices.
Check your mobile devices regularly to ensure that you activate the right privacy settings. Always turn off strange or suspicious controls to be on the safer side.