by Anthony W. Accurso
PenLink, a Nebraska company, is filling the void in the U.S. of private companies that help law enforcement agencies—mostly federal, but some local as well—accomplish the digital equivalent of wiretapping communications that occur over social media messaging services.
The company got its start in 1987 by helping streamline the process for law enforcement to obtain and process the data from pen register orders.
Thirty-five years later, the company has pivoted to providing similar services aimed at the new dominant mode of communications—messaging apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, Google, and Facebook.
According to information presented at a marketing conference pitched to law enforcement agencies, wiretaps can provide real-time tracking of user communication, but they require inconvenient things like a warrant substantiated by probable cause.
However, if police are willing to patiently await updates—every 15 minutes for Facebook and Instagram, but only four times per day for Snapchat—they can simply issue a subpoena or a National Security Letter requiring the companies to provide the same information without needing a warrant.
A reporter for Forbes has found that several federal agencies think this is more than adequate, so the federal government is spending over $20 million a year to give the DEA, ICE, and FBI access to PenLink’s tools, which streamline the subpoena process, aggregate the results in a meaningful way, and allow law enforcement to comb the message data for possible violations of the law.
During the presentation, the PenLink rep spoke effusively about the kinds of data that go beyond the mere content of messages. “Google’s the best,” said the rep while explaining that the company can provide vast amounts of data without the need for a warrant. He also noted that Google can sometime locate a user’s location to within five feet, whereas data from Facebook and Twitter have a much larger margin of error.
Even companies like Apple, that claims to zealously guard its users’ privacy, will decrypt anything in its iCloud storage and fork it over to the police to be aggregated for searches through PenLink’s software.
Israeli companies have been creating hacking tools that can remotely compromise a smartphone merely by sending it a message—even without the user clicking on a link—and turn the device into a spy platform for the government agency deploying it.
PenLink’s software is the next best thing, and it doesn’t require hacking the user’s phone (which also requires a warrant under U.S. law). They help law enforcement gather tons of data without requiring a warrant and turn that data into actionable intel.
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