Privacy SOS

Dozens of countries use Israeli spy technology to tap into global cell phone location databases

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Cell phone carriers like AT&T and Verizon keep detailed records of our movements, for business purposes. In order for our phones to work, the companies need to keep track of how many people are in range of a given tower at any moment. For a long time we thought the government tracked our cell phones by asking phone companies for this information. But a new expose in the Washington Post reveals that governments or even criminal organizations have another way of accessing the information held by cell phone carriers about our locations: they tap directly into the industry's shared location database.

Users of such technology type a phone number into a computer portal, which then collects information from the location databases maintained by cellular carriers, company documents show. In this way, the surveillance system learns which cell tower a target is currently using, revealing his or her location to within a few blocks in an urban area or a few miles in a rural one.

It is unclear which governments have acquired these tracking systems, but one industry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive trade information, said that dozens of countries have bought or leased such technology in recent years.

The technology allows law enforcement to track the physical locations of every single person in a country—or even the whole world—without issuing a single legal demand to a cell phone company. That doesn't mean cell carriers can't help, though:

Verint can install SkyLock on the networks of cellular carriers if they are cooperative — something that telecommunications experts say is common in countries where carriers have close relationships with their national governments.

The Post says that AT&T, which has a very friendly relationship with the US National Security Agency, "declined to comment" for its story.

Among the most appealing features of the system, the brochure says, is its ability to sidestep the cellular operators that sometimes protect their users’ personal information by refusing government requests or insisting on formal court orders before releasing information.

“In most cases mobile operators are not willing to cooperate with operational agencies in order to provide them the ability to gain control and manipulate the network services given to its subscribers,” the brochure says. “Verint’s SkyLock is a global geo-location solution which was designed and developed to address the limitations mentioned above, and meet operational agency requirements.”

If Verint and AT&T or Verizon had such a relationship, working in tandem with the NSA, it wouldn't be the first time. Historian James Bamford's "The Shadow Factory" describes how AT&T and Verizon tasked two Israeli companies—Verint and Narus—with “the bugging of their entire networks — carrying billions of American communications every day," in service of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping scheme, which has now been institutionalized.

A 2008 Forward article calls Verint "mysterious", and its connections to Israeli intelligence "troubling":

Narus and Verint were involved in tapping phone and Internet communications for, respectively, AT&T and Verizon.
“AT&T have outsourced the bugging of their entire networks — carrying billions of American communications every day -— to two mysterious companies with very troubling ties to foreign connections,” he writes. “What is especially troubling, but little known, is that both companies have extensive ties to a foreign country, Israel, as well as links to that country’s intelligence service — a service with a long history of aggressive spying against the U.S.”
Verint's "SkyLock" technology enables any government anywhere in the world to track the location of every single operative cell phone. The information gleaned (possibly directly from Verizon or AT&T's customer database) enables spies to target cell phones for hacking and wiretapping. Dozens of countries use the system to track phones all over the world.
Who's spying on you right now? Since this technology has been kept almost entirely secret, even from regulators, we don't know. And since congress provided telecommunications companies with immunity from lawsuits over illegal spying, we aren't likely to find justice in the courts.
If the corporations we pay to provide us a necessary service are actually ratting on us on a system-wide, institutional level, in collusion with the most powerful spy agencies in the United States, what's a lowly cell phone user to do?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.