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Gov. Abbott acquires Israeli cell phone tracking software for Texas border operation

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference as Texas Army National Guard troops deploy from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Monday May 8, 2023, to secure the Texas-Mexico border.  Listening are, left to right, Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer, Border Czar Mike Banks and DPS Director Steve McCraw.
Jay Janner
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference as Texas Army National Guard troops deploy from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Monday May 8, 2023, to secure the Texas-Mexico border in anticipation of the end of Title 42 later this week. Listening are, left to right, Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer, Border Czar Mike Banks and DPS Director Steve McCraw.

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The Texas Department of Public Safety has acquired a powerful and controversial surveillance software that could be violating the privacy rights of Texans, according to a new report from the nonprofit newsroom, The Intercept.

The Israeli cell phone tracking software Tangles is being used in Operation Lone Star, Gov. Greg Abbott's controversial $4 billion border security program that uses thousands of DPS troopers and Texas National Guard members to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges.

Abbott has recently come into conflict with the federal government overescalations of Operation Lone Star, including a floating buoy barrier and inhumane treatment of migrants.

The Intercept first reported the latest development in Operation Lone Star — that the Abbott administration has spent close to a million dollars for the software that allows DPS to locate and track people through their mobile phones in accordance with Abbott's disaster declaration over migration at the border.

“You could potentially view a mobile device as it crosses the border and follow that person as they proceed further into Texas,” Sam Biddle, a technology reporter for The Intercept, told TPR.

Bidden said that because Tangles sells the data to DPS, the state is able to avoid accusations of violating the Fourth amendment.

“Critics and observers of this technology worry that when you remove those safeguards, you are really amping up potential for abuse,” Bidden said.

Texas DPS and Abbott's office did not respond to requests for comment and questions about how the software is being used and who is being targeted.

TPR's David Martin Davies spoke with Sam Biddle of The Intercept about his reporting.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Davies: Can you tell me more about the software the state of Texas has purchased.

Biddle: The company itself is called Cobwebs Technologies. The tool in question -- the software in question -- is called Tangles.

Davies: And what does that do?

Biddle: So Tangles does a whole bunch of stuff. It's sort of all-in-one surveillance tool aimed at primarily law enforcement and government use, but also private sector use. It includes a variety of tools for surveilling public web use and can scour social media postings, in-app content, like stuff posted within Tinder. The company claims it has image recognition capabilities, but I think the standout feature and easily the most controversial one is its ability to track an individual's location using their phone. And not just track it, but track it without a court order -- which is typically needed if you want to, uh, follow someone around.

Davies: So that piece of information in and of itself that Greg Abbott's Operation Lone Star has purchased a subscription to this software surveillance. Is that in and of itself a story?

Biddle: Well, I certainly think so. This is an incredibly powerful technology. The ability to select a person or select a geographical area and say, I am now going to be able to see everyone who set foot in that area so long as they were carrying a cell phone --which, you know, in 2023 is everyone essentially. And then follow their movements to presumably where they live, where they sleep, where they work, wherever they may go -- even if they're under no suspicion of wrongdoing.

I think the key thing to keep in mind with this kind of technology is that it is based on commercially available data. This is data that is bought and sold, not data that is acquired using a subpoena or a search warrant. You are just buying this information and by buying it, you avoid the kind of safeguards that are in place in the United States, namely the Fourth Amendment that typically dictates what kind of potentially invasive searches the government is allowed to do. This technology, because it is commercial in nature, sidesteps that. And critics and observers of this technology worry that when you remove those safeguards, you are really amping up the potential for abuse.

Davies: Now, there is another software out there that's gotten some media coverage called Pegasus, which some governments have purchased, like in Mexico to surveil journalists, and they're able to get phone conversations and text messages and all sorts of stuff. This is not that, this is what, what, like a skinny Pegasus?

Biddle: Yeah. So they are different tools that could be used in conjunction with one another potentially. But Pegasus is used mainly to get the contents of a phone. So if a government is able to successfully implant Pegasus on a target's phone, they would be able to read that person's text messages and look at their photos and read their emails, et cetera. It's basic, Pegasus basically allows you to act as if you were holding the phone in your hand -- you have access to it. What Tangles provides on paper at least, is the capability to follow that phone, not to get what's on it. But to say, I'm interested in this iPhone and I'm now able to see wherever it goes throughout the day, every day, and look backwards in time. I should add to see where has this phone been, where has it traveled, what other phones and owners of those phones has it come into contact with? That's what Tangles provides.

Davies: Has Operation Lone Star admitted that they have Tangles or how did you realize that they have it?

Biddle: So unfortunately, the Texas Department of Public Safety did not return a request for comment or answer any of the questions we had on this technology. But we know they have it because we have, uh, the receipts, as they say, but also literally the purchase orders, that were generated when the state of Texas did business with Cobwebs. The procurement records are publicly available if you request them. And these are obtained through a public records request in the state of Texas.

Davies: Do we know how Operation Lone Star is using this technology?

Biddle: No, and that is really a million dollar question here. Again, the state did not answer any of the questions we put to them. You know, first and foremost, how is this being used? All we know is the capabilities they have. We know that they now have the ability to track someone's movements through their phone at will without the typical judicial oversight, what that means in practice, how that is actually being used, whether it's only being used at the border or elsewhere, or for things having nothing to do with the border situation. These are all open questions and questions that I think deserve greater scrutiny.

Davies: So I'm trying to imagine why it would be useful for Operation Lone Star to have something like this. Are they able to track people who come across the border without authorization, and they're seeing phones coming across the border. Does it do that?

Biddle: I want to caution that this is just me speculating, but one thing this would allow the state to do is map and very rapidly determine all of the phones that have been at a particular border crossing. You could potentially view a mobile device as it crosses the border and follow that person as they proceed further into Texas. Hypothetically, you could see who they've come into contact with. You could then track the people that they've come into contact with. I think what's concerning here is the potential. And we know this is an expensive software and the hundreds of thousands of dollars that has been spent on it over the past few years. So it seems like it was at least a value, to Texas DPS. But yeah, these all remain open questions as to how exactly it is being used. But, the experts who discussed this with us for our story said that just the fact that this capability is in the hands of the state and without any real meaningful oversight is cause enough for concern.

Davies: Could this technology be useful in monitoring tracking activists who are trying to protect the rights of migrants or also could it be useful in tracking political opponents?

Biddle: I could imagine it would be useful for tracking anyone you might want to track. Whether the state would do so and flagrant flagrantly abuse this tool that is supposed to be for investigations of crimes is another matter. But, if you're asking whether it's tactically possible, absolutely.

Davies: Governor Greg Abbott has declared a state of emergency. And because of that, he's basically suspended civil rights along the border for many. So lets say the software is being used to track people without their knowledge. They might respond: well, we've declared a disaster. We need this tool to deal with the border emergency. 

Biddle: I think one of the great risks here is that when you use that kind of language, emergency or disaster, and Texans believe that they are living in the midst of a disaster or an emergency, people might be more willing than usual to say, okay, well, if there's really an emergency going on, I guess our government does need this added power. I mean, you see that after September 11th with the establishment of a national terror apparatus. You see it in wartime throughout history. You see it during various public health emergencies that stem from COVID. People hear there's an emergency going on, they tend to get scared and people are scared. They tend to maybe let the government amass power they might otherwise be uncomfortable with.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Border and Immigration News Desk, including the Catena Foundation and Texas Mutual Insurance Company.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi