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Muckrock Looks to Track the Trackers

BY Sam Roudman | Thursday, June 12 2014

Majestic cellphone tower. Credit: Raymond Shobe, Flickr

Police have the ability to trace you from your cellphone, track you from your social media activity, and even collect or buy data on where you've been driving. But the degree of surveillance –knowledge of which police force is using which surveillance tool and how much– is largely unknown. To shed light on the extent of surveillance at the local level, collaborative news site Muckrock has started a campaign on Beacon to fund a nationwide investigation into how police departments are using cellphone data.

"We’re trying to look at [local surveillance] comprehensively and proactively," says Muckrock cofounder Michael Morisy. "We're trying to figure out what’s happening now, what are departments considering, what are vendors selling, and what are the privacy implications."

The site says the following:

The sheer ubiquity of mobile devices and cell phone towers together grant law enforcement a staggering array of investigative tools. Whether by obtaining location data from carriers, analyzing call history to track social networks, deploying Stingray devices that spoof cell towers and log all devices within range, or tapping into calls and other communications themselves, law enforcement leverage mobile devices for a range of investigate purposes.

But technology has outpaced legal restrictions and public awareness regarding how investigators obtain, share and retain such data from mobile devices. We need a clearer picture of precisely how and to what extent law enforcement use cell phone data right now in order to consider how they ought to use them in the future.

Muckrock is looking to raise $10,000 by the end of the month. That money will help fund a couple full and part time staffers, as well as the filing of a thousand or so information requests across the country.