The AP team of Garance Burke, Jason Dearen, Peter Hamlin, Dario Lopez, Maye-E Wong, Allen Breed and Haven Daley delivered an all-formats package revealing a startling truth: U.S. law enforcement agencies have used a smartphone tracking tool called “Fog Reveal” — made by a company that has no website or public information — to track people’s movements going back months, if not years, sometimes without search warrants.
A tip early this year to investigative reporter Burke produced a unique cache of thousands of pages of Freedom of Information Act responses regarding an obscure company named Fog Data Science. That sent Burke and investigative colleague Dearen on a seven-month odyssey, reporting on the company and its sophisticated technology.
The pair worked to catalog the FOIA documents gathered by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy advocacy group, while reporting further on Fog Reveal. It quickly became clear this would be a highly technical story about an industry operating at the fringes of the law. And while the documents helped explain how the technology worked, it took weeks of trial-and-error writing to determine exactly what was, and was not, known about the company and its product.
The reporters spent hours interviewing legal and tech experts about the constitutionality of Fog Data Science’s tool, which the company said in marketing materials drew from data generated by thousands of popular apps.
Burke and Dearen also spent months negotiating with the company’s press representative for access, eventually scoring a background interview with one executive. In addition, they had an on-the-record, on-camera interview with a prosecutor who used Fog successfully, and an on-the-record response to written questions from another company official. Burke also used the GovSpend dataset of governmental spending to reliably report that Fog Data Science had about 40 contracts for its software with nearly two dozen agencies. Police have used Fog Reveal to search hundreds of billions of records from some 250 million mobile devices according to the documents reviewed by AP.
Dearen, meanwhile, approached Starbucks and Waze, explaining how Fog Data Science marketed its tool using their brand names. Both said they never had any relationship with the company and hadn't given the company permission to use their data.
Collaborators at the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Investigations Lab and School of Law helped round out corporate research beyond what was in the documents. And all the while, Burke and Dearen worked to ensure they could include the perspective of law enforcement who found the Fog Reveal tool useful in high-stakes criminal investigations.
Visuals for this story about a technology meant to to go undetected presented a particular challenge, but working in multiple formats, the team of Hamlin, Breed, Wong, Daley and Jeannie Ohm put in long hours to produce an engaging presentation with striking illustrations, video and photos.
The deeply reported story, part of an ongoing AP series, “Tracked,” which investigates the effects of algorithms on people’s everyday lives, was exclusive to the AP and resulted in impressive play for both the print story, which had nearly 222,000 pageviews, and Breed’s video, which by Labor Day had 252,000 views on Twitter alone. Major tech outlets such as WIRED and ArsTechnica cited the story, it made headlines at outlets ranging from CNN to Breitbart, and the reporters fielded requests for both TV and podcast interviews.
The piece circled the globe after being translated into Spanish, French, German, Polish, Chinese, and Japanese.