Originally posted at The Intercept by Sam Richards
UNTIL NOW, the Bartonville, Texas, company Hawk Analytics and its product CellHawk have largely escaped public scrutiny. CellHawk has been in wide use by law enforcement, helping police departments, the FBI, and private investigators around the United States convert information collected by cellular providers into maps of people’s locations, movements, and relationships. Police records obtained by The Intercept reveal a troublingly powerful surveillance tool operated in obscurity, with scant oversight.
CellHawk’s maker says it can process a year’s worth of cellphone records in 20 minutes, automating a process that used to require painstaking work by investigators, including hand-drawn paper plots. The web-based product can ingest call detail records, or CDRs, which track cellular contact between devices on behalf of mobile service providers, showing who is talking to whom. It can also handle cellular location records, created when phones connect to various towers as their owners move around.
Such data can include “tower dumps,” which list all the phones that connected to a given tower — a form of dragnet surveillance. The FBI obtained over 150,000 phone numbers from a single tower dump undertaken in 2010 to try and collect evidence against a bank robbery suspect, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.
Police use CellHawk to process datasets they routinely receive from cell carriers like AT&T and Verizon, typically in vast spreadsheets and often without a warrant. This is in sharp contrast to a better known phone surveillance technology, the stingray: a mobile device that spies on cellular devices by impersonating carriers’ towers, tricking phones into connecting, and then intercepting their communications. Unlike the stingray, CellHawk does not require such subterfuge or for police to position a device near people of interest. Instead, it helps them exploit information already collected by private telecommunications providers and other third parties…
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