Teardown of Covert FBI Car-Tracking Device Reveals GPS, Long Battery Life

By Fahmida Y. Rashid  |  Posted 2011-05-11

Teardown of Covert FBI Car-Tracking Device Reveals GPS, Long Battery Life

The hardware hackers over at iFixit disassembled and analyzed the vehicle location tracker used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The simple GPS-enabled device can be used by the United States government to track citizens without a warrant.

The iFixit group rips open new gadgets and examines their internal components and publishes their findings. The group received an FBI tracking device from environmentalist activist Kathy Thomas who found it under her car six years ago, Wired's ThreatLevel reported on May 9. Wired worked with iFixit to take apart the device.

"Being in its presence, we can almost feel our civil liberties being flushed down the toilet," iFixit wrote in its analysis.

While it's unclear how many people are tracked with GPS devices every year, based on recent lawsuits and news reports it's apparent that FBI agents routinely use them as part of surveillance. The GPS vehicle tracker collects rudimentary information, as all it can say is the vehicle went to a certain location but not who. One reason for its popularity amongst law enforcement circles may be because in most jurisdictions, investigators don't need a court warrant to put a tracking device on the car.

"Ever since 9/11, the courts have tended to give government -a pass'" when balancing privacy concerns with law enforcement requests, Andrew B. Serwin, chair of the privacy, security & information management practice at law firm Foley & Lardner, told eWEEK. In general, judges are willing to give local and federal law enforcement some leeway in doing their job, Serwin said.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled last year that using a GPS tracker was no different than physically trailing a suspect in public and that such surveillance was not protected by the Fourth Amendment so a warrant was unnecessary. The court protected agents even if they placed the device on a suspect's car which was parked in his or her own driveway.

In a different case last year, a federal appeals court in Washington D.C. ruled differently, insisting that collecting data from a GPS device from a suspect's car amounted to a search and required a warrant. In this case, it was a drug suspect's Jeep. Even though prosecutors argued that the device collected information that anyone on the street could obtain by following the suspect, Judge Douglas Ginsburg disagreed, noting that the GPS tracker's persistent, nonstop surveillance was different from physically tracking a suspect.

"Unlike one's movements during a single journey, the whole of one's movement over the course of a month is not actually exposed to the public because the likelihood anyone will observe all those movements is effectively nil,"Ginsburg wrote.

Covert Tracking Issue Goes to Supreme Court


The Obama Administration called the federal appeals court ruling "vague and unworkable" and filed a writ last month to take the case to the United States Supreme Court. The Court hasn't decided yet whether or not to hear the case.

The key question here is how the courts view stored information, Serwin said. Past court rulings have held that data stored on hosted services, even if it's not shared with anyone, is not protected because there's a "lessened expectation of privacy," according to Serwin. The same goes for hardware devices. There was a case earlier in the year where the California Supreme Court ruled that police do not need warrants to look at text messages stored on the suspect's cell phone.

The GPS tracker Thomas handed over for iFixit analysis is very similar to the one Yasir Afifi found underneath his car in October 2010, according to Wired. Afifi, an Arab-American college student in Santa Clara, Calif., filed a lawsuit in March alleging that the FBI violated his privacy rights by placing a GPS device on his car without a warrant. Afifi found the unknown unit on the bottom of his car and a friend posted the photo on Reddit.com to try to identify it. Two FBI officials showed up to reclaim the "expensive" device, he told Wired's ThreatLevel.

After taking the transponder unit apart, iFixit's team found it contained a GPS unit for receiving the car's position, an RF transmitter for relaying the location to the FBI, and a battery pack with four lithium-thionyl chloride D cell batteries, that can probably last as long as 20 years.

"The FBI really did not want anyone tampering with the innards of their tracking device," the iFixit team wrote, noting that the screws were coated with so much threadlocker that they had to use a power drill to remove the screw heads.

According to Wired, the Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies are not required to compile or disclose statistics about how the trackers are being used. The Department of Justice regularly reports to Congress on the national security letters issued to ISPs and other businesses for customer records.

iFixit rated the device a -10 on its Repairability Score, where 10 is the easiest to repair. "The FBI will find you if you find their tracking device. You cannot choose to be not tracked by the FBI. You can legally be tracked by one of these units," the group wrote.

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