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Texas Using Highly Sophisticated Israeli Phone Tracking Software

by Jo Ellen Nott

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021 after declaring a state of emergency in response to a rise in border crossings and fentanyl trafficking in southern Texas. As part of the $4.5 billion Texas spent in two years, the Texas Department of Public Safety’s (“DPS”) Intelligence and Counterterrorism division purchased a year of Tangles access for $198,000 in August 2021. The state has renewed its Tangles subscription twice since then.

Tangles is a powerful phone tracking software from Cobwebs Technologies, an Israeli surveillance contractor with $23.5 million in estimated annual revenue. “It allows users to track people’s movements as they navigate both the internet and the real world, incorporating social media posts, app activity, facial recognition, and phone tracking,” reported The Intercept in July 2023. Its threat to the public at large is that the software allows users to track the movements of private individuals without a court order.

DPS did not say how it would use Tangles, but the software has the potential to track migrants, activists, and other individuals. Texas also purchased “unlimited” access to Clearview AI, a controversial face recognition platform.

According to The Intercept, the most powerful feature of Tangles obtained by the DPS is WebLoc, which is described as “a cutting-edge location solution which automatically monitors and analyzes location-based data in any specified geographic location.” Although the AI-powered open-source intelligence company gathers device location data from multiple sources, the Texas DPS contract specifically mentions “ad ID,” the unique strings of text used to identify and track a mobile phone through online advertising clicks.

In a contract from the Office of Naval Intelligence, the military justified its purchase of WebLoc from Cobwebs because the software is “the only commercially available GEOINT/SIGINT to provide the level of detail surrounding mobile telemetry data including but not limited to the exact locations of smartphones, what device type it is, but also personal information associated with their owners, including age, gender, languages spoken, and interests – ‘e.g., music, luxury goods, basketball,’ applications downloaded and used, GEO located IP addresses, and the automation and monitoring of unique mobile advertising IDs.”

The purchase of Tangles for Operation Lone Star raises Fourth Amendment concerns among privacy advocates. They believe the software gives law enforcement agencies too much power to track people without a warrant and expands the government’s capabilities for surveillance. A more perfect commercially available surveillance tool does not currently exist yet is not subject to judicial oversight. The Intercept warns that “a legislative vacuum allows phone-tracking tools, fed by the unregulated global data broker market, to give law enforcement agencies a way around Fourth Amendment protections.”

Cobwebs Technologies sells Tangles to a concerning variety of governmental agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the IRS, and the Office of Naval Intelligence. In 2021, Facebook removed 200 accounts used by Cobwebs to track its users in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Poland, and several other countries. Facebook, a.k.a Meta, explained that it saw Cobwebs targeting activists, opposition politicians, and government officials in Hong Kong and Mexico.

In addition to privacy issues and the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections, another concerning aspect about DPS using the Tangles software in Texas is the possibility it will worsen the uneven administration of justice among marginalized communities. The deployment of Tangles and Clearview AI can have an unintended but very real negative impact on criminal justice reform. Reform supporters believe that the justice system is frequently too punitive and biased against minorities. The use of these surveillance tools could make it even more difficult for people to defend themselves against criminal charges.

By way of illustration, if the Texas DPS uses Tangles to track the movements of a person who is suspected of a crime, that information could be used to build a case against the person, even if they have not been charged with a crime. The use of Clearview AI could also be used to identify people who are protesting government policies or who are engaged in other activities that are protected by the First Amendment.  

 

Sources: Aljazeera, GovTribe, Growjo, The Intercept

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