Busted! Two New Fed GPS Trackers Found on SUV

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Tue Nov 8 08:16:06 PST 2011


Busted! Two New Fed GPS Trackers Found on SUV

By Kim Zetter 

November 8, 2011  | 

5:30 am  | 

Categories: Surveillance

The second of two GPS trackers found recently on the vehicle of a young man
in California.

Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired.com

As the Supreme Court gets ready to hear oral arguments in a case Tuesday that
could determine if authorities can track U.S. citizens with GPS vehicle
trackers without a warrant, a young man in California has come forward to
Wired to reveal that he found not one but two different devices on his
vehicle recently.

The 25-year-old resident of San Jose, California, says he found the first one
about three weeks ago on his Volvo SUV while visiting his mother in Modesto,
about 80 miles northeast of San Jose. After contacting Wired and allowing a
photographer to snap pictures of the device, it was swapped out and replaced
with a second tracking device. A witness also reported seeing a strange man
looking beneath the vehicle of the young manbs girlfriend while her car was
parked at work, suggesting that a tracking device may have been retrieved
from her car.

Then things got really weird when police showed up during a Wired interview
with the man.

The young man, who asked to be identified only as Greg, is one among an
increasing number of U.S. citizens who are finding themselves tracked with
the high-tech devices.

The Justice Department has said that law enforcement agents employ GPS as a
crime-fighting tool with bgreat frequency,b and GPS retailers have told Wired
that theybve sold thousands of the devices to the feds.

But little is known about how or how often law enforcement agents use them.
And without a clear ruling requiring agents to obtain a bprobable causeb
warrant to use the devices, it leaves citizens who may have only a distant
connection to a crime or no connection at all vulnerable to the whimsy of
agents who are fishing for a case.

The invasive technology, for example, allows police, the FBI, the Drug
Enforcement Administration and other agencies to engage in covert
round-the-clock surveillance over an extended period of time, collecting vast
amounts of information about anyone who drives the vehicle that is being

bA person who knows all of anotherbs travels can deduce whether he is a
weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful
husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of
particular individuals or political groups b and not just one such fact about
a person, but all such facts,b wrote U.S. Appeals Court Judge Douglas
Ginsburg in a recent ruling that the Supreme Court will be examining this
week to determine if warrants should be required for use with trackers.

Greg says he discovered the first tracker on his vehicle after noticing what
looked like a cell phone antenna inside a hole on his back bumper where a
cable is stored for towing a trailer. The device, the size of a mobile phone,
was not attached to a battery pack, suggesting the battery was embedded in
its casing.

The first GPS tracker found was slipped into a fabric sleeve, containing
magnets, and on the underside of the vehicle in the wheel well of the spare
tire.  Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired.com

A week later when he was back in San Jose, he checked the device, and it
appeared to have been repositioned slightly on the vehicle to make it less
visible. It was placed on the underside of the car in the wheel well that
holds a spare tire.

Greg, a Hispanic American who lives in San Jose at the home of his
girlfriendbs parents, contacted Wired after reading a story published last
year about an Arab-American citizen named Yasir Afifi who found a tracking
device on his car. Greg wanted to know what he should do with the device.

Afifi believed he was being tracked by authorities for six months before a
mechanic discovered the device on his car when he took it into a garage for
an oil change. He apparently came under surveillance after the FBI received a
vague tip from someone who said Afifi might be a threat to national security.
Afifi has filed a suit against the government, asserting that authorities
violated his civil liberties by placing the device on his vehicle without a
warrant and without suspicion of a crime. His attorney, Zahra Billoo, told
Wired this week that shebs requested a stay in her clientbs case, pending a
ruling by the Supreme Court in the GPS tracking case now before it.

Gregbs surveillance appears to involve different circumstances. It most
likely involves a criminal drug investigation centered around his cousin, a
Mexican citizen who fled across the border to that country a year ago and may
have been involved in the drug trade as a dealer.

bHe took off. I think he was fleeing. I think he committed a crime,b Greg
told Wired.com, asserting that he himself is not involved in drugs.

Greg says he bought the SUV from his cousin in June, paying cash for it to a
family member. He examined the car at the time and found no tracking device
on it. A month later, he drove his cousinbs wife to Tijuana. Greg says he
remained in Mexico a couple of days before returning to the U.S.

The first GPS tracker, out of its sleeve. Photo courtesy of Greg.

Itbs possible the surveillance began shortly after his return, but Greg
discovered the device only about three weeks ago during his visit to Modesto.
The device was slipped into a sleeve that contained small magnets to affix it
to the car.

On Tuesday, November 1, Wired photographer Jon Snyder went to San Jose to
photograph the device. The next day, two males and one female appeared
suddenly at the business where Gregbs girlfriend works, driving a Crown
Victoria with tinted windows. A witness reported to Greg that one of the men
jumped out of the car, bent under the front of the girlfriendbs car for a few
seconds, then jumped back into the Crown Victoria and drove off. Wired was
unable to confirm the story.

The following day, Greg noticed that the GPS tracker on his own car had been
replaced the gadget with a different tracker, this one encased in a clam
shell cover attached to a large round magnet to hold the device to the car.
The device was attached to a 3.6 VDC Lithium Polymer rechargeable battery.

There was no writing on the tracker to identify its maker, but a label on the
battery indicated that itbs sold by a small firm in Farmingdale, New York,
called Revanche. A notice on the U.S. Department of Justicebs web site last
June indicates the company sold 500 of the batteries and 250 battery chargers
to the Drug Enforcement Administration. A separate Justice Department notice
in 2008 for what appears to be a similar Revanche battery indicates the
batteries work with GPS devices made by Nextel and Sendum.

A spokeswoman with the DEAbs office in San Francisco, however, declined to
say if the device on Gregbs vehicle was theirs.

bWe cannot comment on our means or methods that we use, so I cannot provide
you with any additional information,b said DEA spokeswoman Casey McEnry.

Second GPS tracker with clam shell casing and Lithium Polymer battery.
Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired.com

The second device on Gregbs vehicle appears to be a Sendum PT200 GPS tracker
with the factory battery swapped out and replaced with the Revanche battery.
The Sendum GPS tracker is marketed to private investigators, law enforcement
and transportation security managers and sells for about $430 without the
battery. With the factory battery, bit will last 7-15 days reporting every
hour in a good cellular coverage zone,b according to marketing literature
describing it, and it uses CDMA cellular communications and gpsOne location
services to determine its location.

When this reporter drove down to meet Greg and photograph the second tracker
with photographer Snyder, three police cars appeared at the location that had
been pre-arranged with Greg, at various points driving directly behind me
without making any verbal contact before leaving.

After moving the photo shoot to a Rotten Robbies gas station a mile away from
the first location, another police car showed up. In this case, the officer
entered the station smiling at me and turned his car around to face the
direction of Gregbs car, a couple hundred yards away. He remained there while
the device was photographed. A passenger in the police car, dressed in
civilian clothes, stepped out of the vehicle to fill a gas container, then
the two left shortly before the photo shoot was completed.

The Obama administration will be defending the warrantless use of such
trackers in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday morning. The
administration, which is attempting to overturn a lower court ruling that
threw out a drug dealerbs conviction over the warrantless use of a tracker,
argues that citizens have no expectation of privacy when it comes to their
movements in public so officers donbt need to get a warrant to use such

Itbs unclear if authorities obtained a warrant to track Gregbs vehicle. While
Greg says hebs committed no crimes and has nothing to hide, the
not-so-stealthy police maneuver at his girlfriendbs place of employment makes
it look to others like shebs involved in something nefarious, he says. That
concerns him.

It concerns attorney Billoo as well.

bFor a lot of us, itbs like, Well Ibm not selling cocaine, so let them put a
tracking device on the car of [a suspect] who is selling cocaine,b Billoo
says. bAnd Ibm not a terrorist, so let them put the device on someone
[suspected of being] a terrorist. But it shouldnbt be unchecked authority on
the part of police officers. If law enforcement doesnbt care to have their
authority checked, then webre in a lot of trouble.b

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Kim Zetter is a senior reporter at Wired covering cybercrime, privacy,
security and civil liberties.  Follow @KimZetter and @ThreatLevel on Twitter.

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