October 16, 2019

In the News

Miami Police to purchase spyware to trace and monitor phones and social media
 
 
By Jack Brook
 

The Miami Police Department will soon have its own surveillance technology to track and monitor phone calls and social media messages. 

Miami city commissioners unanimously voted Thursday in favor of allocating $70,600 for the police department to purchase technology from Pen-Link, a Nebraska-based surveillance technology company capable of “intercepting, processing and analyzing” data from phones and websites. 

The technology can determine in real time when someone has sent a message on social media, and to whom they sent that message, said Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina. The numbers for incoming and outgoing calls to a suspect’s phone are recorded, and conversations can be monitored live with a court-sanctioned order, he said.

Pen-Link’s website says its products “use global positioning to plot cell site usage or ping coordinates,” enabling law enforcement to locate targets. The Miami New Times first reported on the department’s potential acquisition of the software.

“The intention is to be able to track anybody that makes a threat that is going to cause physical damage or hurt anybody — they can trace them personally,” said District 4 Commissioner Manolo Reyes. “It’s just for protection, not for persecution.”

The technology is not new for city police. Since 2003, the Miami-Dade Police Department has spent more than $500,000 on Pen-Link products and often shared them with the city police. But county police will no longer allow other departments to use the technology due to budgetary restrictions, according to public records.

Miami police work will be more efficient now that the department will have its own spyware, Colina said. Pen-Link technology will only be employed for the “most serious, heinous, violent crimes,” like kidnapping and murder and will always require a warrant to use, he said.

State and federal law enforcement agencies have long relied on Pen-Link’s technology. The company has contracted with the FBI to parse and analyze social media data, a practice which has been subject to scrutiny. The ACLU sued the Department of Justice earlier this year over the extent of its social media monitoring and data gathering. 

As City Lab reported in a 2017 investigation, police departments after 9/11 began to stockpile spyware technology, prompting pushback from civil rights advocates who have called for more restrictions on the use of surveillance systems.

“Automated mass surveillance systems like the one passed by the City of Miami threaten our freedom and pose a particular threat to communities of color who are already unjustly targeted,” the ACLU of Florida said in a statement to the Miami Herald. “The Miami Police Department should not have an unchecked ability to decide when and under what terms they acquire and use surveillance technologies against its community.”

Pen-Link software comes built-in with the ability to send data to and from national intelligence databases, including the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a Pen-Link products guide. Last year, ICE signed a $2.4 million contractwith Pen-Link. 

Data gathered through Pen-Link will not be shared with outside agencies like ICE, Colina said. 

This is not the first spyware technology Miami Police have purchased. The department already relies on Cellebrite, a controversial spyware technology that can extract personal data from the cellphones of suspects. 

“If there’s a killer on the loose, and we have the ability to catch him using technology, then we should use it,” Colina said. “I would find it irresponsible not to.”