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Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
Miami-Dade County Mayor's Office

Mayor Wants to Extend Secret Miami-Dade Police Phone Surveillance

For years, Miami-Dade Police have had the technology to intercept cell phone communications in real time.

Since 2003, the county has spent more than $526,000 on contracts with Pen-Link, a Nebraska-based surveillance technology company, to equip the county police department with a telephone surveillance system. The latest contract with Pen-Link is set to expire on April 30 — but this past Tuesday, Mayor Carlos Gimenez sent a letter urging county commissioners to renew the contract for an extra $318,000, which would push the expiration date to April 30, 2023. A decision is expected February 20.

Miami-Dade cops use Pen-Link's "Lincoln" telephone surveillance system, which enables them to collect and record intercepted communication on systems including wired, wireless, 3G, and IP, according to a contract Gimenez signed.

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The contract is spare on details, but Pen-Link's surveillance system seems to encompass phone calls, texts, and internet communications such as emails or social media messages.

The Miami-Dade Police Department isn't the only one using the system. In June 2018, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement signed a $2.4 million contract with the surveillance providers. Across the country, police departments in Chicago, Georgia, and California have inked contracts with Pen-Link that allow police to "collect, analyze, and export massive amounts of social media and internet communication data," the company's website boasts. In many cases, police use civil asset forfeiture money to pay for the surveillance technology.

Pen-Link is also employed by the Drug Enforcement Agency, which has paid the company $120,115,525 since 1995, a review of federal contracts shows.

No one wants to talk about the technology. Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp and cops cited a Sunshine Law exemption when asked to clarify what the technology is used for. In the letter to commissioners, Kemp said: "All details of the installation and/or equipment utilized are protected from public records requests under Florida State Statute 119.071(2)(d)." And the company didn't return a call seeking comment.

Micah W. Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called the response "a deliberate and wanton disregard for transparency," adding, “The increasing, secret use of surveillance technologies by local police creates oppressive, stigmatizing environments in which every community member is treated as a potential criminal. It becomes especially true for black and brown communities, as well as politically unpopular groups."

Yet the company's website does reveal some details. Pen-Link products "use global positioning to plot cell site usage or ping coordinates in real-time," meaning Pen-Link enables law enforcement agencies like ICE to track people using geolocation data. In 2017, CityLab reported that Pen-Link products can "store and process a large amount of intercepted metadata, allowing officers to create visualizations of individuals' social networks and geolocated calling patterns."

Industry pamphlet
Industry pamphlet

"Manage target alerts, control user permissions, and get access to historic and live locations with PenPoint," reads the description for another Pen-Link product. "Tell the story of your targets' patterns of life and predict future movements with customizable mapping features and in-app navigation. GO NOW AND KNOW, NOW, FASTER, WITH PENPOINT."

The Hialeah Police Department, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, the city of Boca Raton, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement all use Pen-Link surveillance technology. More details on the system's capabilities can be found in Pen-Link's deal with the FDLE, which also uses the Lincoln intercept system.

"FDLE currently owns a Lincoln Intercept system that is used for wiretap operations and to intercept data to include voice traffic from cellular and land-based telephone systems," wrote FDLE employee Bill Spencer in 2014. "This system also allows investigators to collect, collate and analyze the data retrieved from these interceptions."

A 2016 email from a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office purchasing coordinator to a procurement officer at the city's ethics department notes that Pen-Link can "collect, interpret, decode, and analyze sound files, both in real-time and historical" and can "intercept Blackberry voice and text."

According to the JSO email, Pen-Link also gives law enforcement officials "real-time mapping on current activity cell devices and tablets... This allows our detectives to track people who they are tracing in real-time."

In 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation offered to cover the purchase cost of the surveillance technology for the Santa Ana Police Department in California. SAPD sought to acquire the Pen-Link PLX product, which lets police conduct "live interception of communication over the internet (i.e. Facebook messages, Twitter, Viber, etc.)."

Last month, the ACLU sued the federal government over its social media surveillance practices. “Multiple agencies are taking steps to monitor social media users and their speech, activities, and associations,” the lawsuit states. “According to publicly available information, Defendants are investing in technology and systems that enable the programmatic and sustained tracking of U.S. citizens and noncitizens alike."

"They also have ramped up the monitoring and retention of immigrants’ and visa applicants’ social media information, including for the purpose of conducting what the Trump administration has called ‘extreme vetting’ or ‘visa lifecycle setting,'" raising serious free speech and privacy concerns, the lawsuit states.

In a blog post explaining the ACLU's decision to file suit, ACLU attorneys Matt Cagle and Hugh Handeyside called out the FBI's contract with Pen-Link, noting that the bureau paid the company nearly $40,000 for software to parse, analyze, and store social media data.

"Aside from chilling expression, government monitoring of social media raises the risk that innocent people will be wrongly investigated or put on government watchlists based on that speech," ACLU attorneys wrote. "The public needs to know how the government is watching us — and we shouldn’t have to think about self-censoring what we say online."

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