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Tech Company Enables Surveillance

In the past, police had to engage in a painstaking process to track movements via cellphone records. Unlike common television depictions, this process involved hand-drawn plots on maps as analysts sifted through reams of data. The Hawk Analytics product CellHawk can, on the other hand, process a year’s worth of cellphone records in 20 minutes.

Police routinely receive massive datasets from cellular carriers through a variety of request types. The two most common are “geozone” requests, which gather complete records of cellular activity within a given radius, and “tower dumps,” which is the record of all activity on a particular cellular tower. These datasets usually come in the form of vast spreadsheets, and they “often don’t require a warrant,” The Intercept reports. A single tower dump can include 150,000 phone numbers.

The CellHawk software, according to company brochures, can analyze the vast trove of data in search of particular patterns or contacts of interest to police.

The “unique animation analysis tool” can then plot particular phone calls and locations over time, essentially creating a map of where the phone was and who it contacted. Once CellHawk is locked onto a phone, it can track it, relaying information about when a phone moves from a particular location. As a brochure puts it, CellHawk can help “find out where your suspect sleeps at night.”

The capacity of this technology to invade the privacy, not to mention First Amendment rights of the public, is concerning. When, for example, protests erupted in Minneapolis after the killing of an unarmed Black man in neighboring Wisconsin, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office used phone data from several protesters to create a virtual map of the network of activists responsible for the protest, even though these activists were not accused, or even suspected, of a crime. Hawk Analytics touts this network analysis capacity as a primary feature of its software, and when the Hennepin Sheriff’s Office was asked whether products like CellHawk undermine the presumption of innocence, spokesperson Andrew Skoogman replied, “This is the investigative process.”

CellHawk can be used to analyze ride hailing and GPS usage in addition to general cellphone use, and while it offers a significant advance in surveillance technology, products from companies like the Twitter affiliate Dataminr and the already commonly available array of surveillance technology from license plate readers to drone surveillance were already vastly expanding the reach and persistent surveillance capabilities of police.

There is no evidence the police have been slow to utilize that reach to the fullest possible extent. Verizon, for example, received more than 260,000 subpoenas, warrants, and emergency requests for cellular data in 2019, including 24,000 for locating particular phones. Some places, like Minnesota, can retain this type of information, building maps with products like CellHawk, for years.

Hawk Analytics has dozens of police clients across the country as well as the FBI. Courts have thus far been divided on the legality of the new data-mining tools in the hands of police. Julia Decker, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Minnesota, observed, “I think this highlights how the rapid development of surveillance tech outstrips existing laws ... In this moment of talking about police reform, use of surveillance tech needs to be part of the discussion.” 


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