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Declassified FBI files detail secret surveillance team

36_siThe Federal Bureau of Investigation has turned over new documents detailing how the FBI collects cell phone location information about criminal suspects, but most of the secretive program will remain under wraps for now.

The latest trove of documents was published this week by the  Electronic Privacy Information Center, a DC-based public interest  research group that specializes in issues involving  surveillance and security.

EPIC has forced the Federal Bureau of Investigation to provide  information about how federal law enforcement uses cellphone  surveillancetechnology to spy on suspects, namely portable tools  like “Stingrays” or other “Cell Site Simulators,” which trick  suspects’ phones into connecting to phony networks that are under  surveillance. Once a phone connects to a fake network, technology  allows investigators to determine the location of the user on the  other end — even when the phone isn’t in use.

Law enforcement’s usage of these tools has been known for some  time, and EPIC’s Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI  has slowly but surely returned more information as new documents  are discovered during the last year. The most recent files  obtained through a request reveal the existence of a  previously-unknown inner agency team and little more.

Since last October, the FBI has released to EPIC 13 separate sets  of documents pursuant to the FOIA request, which revealed 22,982  pages about the use of new technology to spy on cell data. Of  that cache, however, the FBI claims it is only able to produce  4,377 pages in whole or in part, or around 19 percent of the  total documents discovered so far.

Of the 400-plus pages published by EPIC this week, the majority  of pages are almost entirely redacted. According to the FBI,  disclosing details about how it develops cell site simulator  technology as a method and technique has enabled them to perform  core law enforcement and national security missions and,  accordingly, that information must remain secret as to protect  vulnerabilities from being exploited by criminals, domestic or  foreign.

Simply put, disclosure would provide a virtual playbook for  criminal elements and terrorists on how to identify, avoid or  evade detection efforts related to the use of this  technology,” the FBI writes in explaining the heavy  redactions. “As a practical matter, disclosure would enable  potential targets to carefully plan their illicit activities and  execute them in a manner that avoids detection, thereby  effectively neutralizing the FBI’s ability to use this  technique.”

But while the latest trove of FOIA’d document do little to detail  the FBI’s use of phony cell towers, it does disclose the  existence of a group called the “Wireless Intercept and Tracking  Team,” which, while installed upwards of a decade ago, has gone  unreported until now.

Slate’s Ryan Gallagher was among the first journalists to spot  information about the Wireless Intercept and Tracking Team, or  WITT, and describes it simply as a group “madeup of  surveillance technology experts who maintain the FBI’s line of  spy tools.”

Theunit, according to the documents, conducts research and  development, offers ‘24×7 operational support’ to feds engaged in  surveillance missions; conducts training in how to use the spy  devices; and liaises between the government and companies selling  the latest surveillance equipment. It also maintains an internal  website that provides information and ‘interactive media,’   presumably to keep the feds well-schooled on the latest cellphone  monitoring issues,” Gallagher wrote.

For now, however, the extent of WITT’s scope will stay secret.  Even with over 400 pages released by the FBI in their latest  document push, details about WITT are few and far between. One  panel says the team’s mission is to “provide the FBI with  technologies to support…” but stops short of explaining  specifics.

EPICS adds that WITT “provides technical and financial support  to a quickly expanding group of federal and local law enforcement  agents trained to use the controversial surveillance tools.”

Documents in the latest FOIA trove suggest that Harris Corp., the  Florida-based technology company behind the Stingray, has  developed other tools over time used by the FBI to track cell  information.

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