Milwaukee, Wisconsin (TFC)— With so little transparency inherent in police surveillance programs, some were excited to hear of Seaglass. The new technology–developed by University of Washington researchers–aimed to empower citizens to detect cell tower simulators. These shadowy devices, sometimes called Stingrays, collect swaths of data from unsuspecting devices and users. Following Seaglass’s field testing, two organizations weighed in on the news with The Fifth Column.
Unveiled in June, Seaglass envisioned equipping citizens to monitor local surveillance activities. Law enforcement utilizes a swath of surveillance methods, some not publicly known or well-understood. Among theses are cell site simulators, or IMSI catchers, producing dummy cell towers for devices to communicate with. A plethora of legitimate towers may exist throughout a city allowing easy access for cell devices. IMSI catchers are Trojan horses well-hidden among that network.
IMSI catchers draw in cellular data, even boosting its own signal to overpower nearby towers. From there, detailed intel–particularly geolocation information–relays back to its controller. IMSI catchers can also intercept texts and calls, though this is less common, Seaglass researcher Peter Ney told TFC.
When it comes to these technologies, especially cell and social media surveillance, authorities are shy. Before acquiring cell site simulators, police agencies sign mandatory non-disclosure agreements from their source. In Milwaukee–one of the cities used to test Seaglass–police went through the FBI and a defense contractor, Harris Corporation. The agreement MPD signed bounded the department to secrecy, even from courts and judges. Under no circumstances, MPD’s non-disclosure agreement revealed were operations to be linked back to the contractor.
Seaglass researchers hoped to circumvent the tight lips of officials with their device. Essentially, Seaglass analyzes tower activity and detects unusual traits. These include tower output, signal strength, and other aspects which–if not IMSI–remain relatively stable. When things change or behave unexpectedly, then one might say “bingo”.
The University Of Washington invention was tested in both Seattle and Milwaukee for months. Uber drivers and other ride-share companies were used to get wide reaching readings. It was a demanding task, but Seaglass shows solid promise. Particularly, its developers hope target communities–like poor or minority areas–would be empowered by Seaglass.
For perspective and feedback, TFC contacted two non-profits: Wisconsin ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Both have been on the front lines of privacy, and surveillance accountability for years. Although not partners, per say, TFC contacted both to get a wide-ranging response. While the ACLU is skilled in law and representation, EFF has several tech experts on staff.
Interestingly, both organizations highlighted the impact of Stingray surveillance on poor and minority communities. What’s more, this similarity was unprompted by TFC, with both parties naming these as target interests.
“Historically and presently, surveillance efforts and police resources have disproportionately targeted certain communities based on factors such as race, religion, ethnicity, income, political activities and perspectives. These practices, along with available data, suggest surveillance technologies are and will continue to be used disproportionately against persons of color and other historically targeted groups.”– Wisconsin ACLU Associate Director Molly Collins
Collins carefully noted how little is actually known about surveillance, even at the local level. “We need to understand what technology police and others are using”, Collins told TFC, “make sure they are getting warrants to use this tech, and require there is oversight and accountability.” She then applauded Seaglass as a means to detect local ops, “but we to push our elected officials”, to monitor and regulate surveillance.
Cooper Quintin, a tech expert with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, took a different spin on target communities. In regards to the Seaglass study’s use of ride-share companies, Quintin noted a kink in the way results were collected.
“The only problem I was able to find with their methods is that the rideshare cars that they used will presumably be less likely to go into poor neighborhoods, those neighborhoods which might be the most likely places to find IMSI catchers.” Rather than a flaw in the study, said Quintin, “it just points to a need to make sure that heavily surveilled (poor, immigrant, etc.) neighborhoods get especially covered.”
On an aside, TFC asked Quintin about the prevalence of law enforcement outsourcing surveillance to contractors. It’s often assumed that departments themselves are handling eyes-everywhere programs. However, as the Dakota Access Pipeline protests showed, at least some are operated by contractors. Although unsure of how common this is, Quintin mentioned one use for outsourcing. “I think that it will become an increasingly common thing as law enforcement figures out that it’s a way they can hide their surveillance from FOIA and public records.”
For Wisconsin ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it’s clear less affluent areas are in need of surveys. These are the regions with high levels of police activity and thus, surveillance operations. Other suggestions for targeted regions might include younger areas, ripe with counter-culture behavior, or protest. The east side of Milwaukee, where it’s university and young people tend to live, is a prime candidate. Although Seaglass did many readings on the east side, some poorer areas weren’t reached.
Those living in target areas must also be aware of what could be happening around them. By and large, most citizens aren’t aware of the extent to which data surveillance is active in their area. Some go as far as to naively discard the very possibility as conspiracy, or downright impossible. That’s unfortunately not the case, especially with today’s large-scale activism being focused on police misconduct, and reform. Seaglass is an important measure, but those who are “historically target groups”–as ACLU’s Molly Collins described–must also help pull back the curtain.