Miami Police Want to Spend $70K on Powerful Phone-Spying Software

Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina says it's "in the best interest of the city to purchase this system."
Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina says it's "in the best interest of the city to purchase this system." Photo by City of Miami Police
In February, New Times reported that the Miami-Dade Police Department wanted to renew its long-standing contract with the Nebraska company PenLink, which sells extremely powerful cell-phone-tracking technology to local cops. At the time, information about the sort of tech MDPD was using to surveil its citizens was fairly sparse, especially because Miami-Dade Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp claimed the info was so sensitive he cited a public-records exemption to avoid talking about the phone-tracking technology.

For years, MDPD had been sharing that cell-phone-reading tech — which can ostensibly intercept text messages, emails, phone calls, and GPS location data from pretty much anyone's phone — with other departments around the county. But at a meeting tomorrow, the neighboring Miami Police Department will ask city commissioners to shell out a minimum of $70,600 so MPD can buy its own phone-spying tech known as the PenLink "PLX" system. They're also asking for an additional $15,000 per year to maintain the software.

And, for once, the department is actually disclosing what it plans to do with the technology.

"The Pen Link Lincoln System is utilized for trap and trace and subscriber information from cellular providers, which includes GPS tower location information," Chief Jorge Colina wrote in a June 19 memo to the city's procurement office. "This information is critical in investigations such as missing persons, abductions/kidnappings, homicides and robberies where time is of the essence. This server is also used for wiretaps for voice/texts and investigations that required social media information for Title III warrants. Without the Pen Link Lincoln System, we cannot obtain cellular site information and are not able to track cellular phones, which is necessary to locate violent felony offenders."

PenLink has been selling tracking technology to cops for years, but its software has come under increased scrutiny as smartphones have come to dominate nearly every aspect of Americans' lives. Infamously, activists during the Ferguson Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 said their phones seemed to conveniently stop working when certain police vehicles drove near them — and reporters later unveiled records suggesting cops were, in fact, listening in on activists' private communications while the demonstrations unfurled. (It's unclear if any of PenLink's technology was used in that case.) In 2017, CityLab reported that most of America's largest police departments have quietly obtained phone-snooping tech without much — or, in some cases, any — public disclosure over the past decade.

MDPD has been working with PenLink since at least 2003, but MPD does not possess PenLink tracking software of its own. (Other smaller nearby police departments, including Hialeah, have contracts with PenLink, however.) Previously, MPD has said that if it needed to intercept a suspect's phone, the department would file a request with county police — but now, the city says county cops have restricted outside departments' access to the software for budgeting reasons. So now MPD wants its own spying technology.

Previously, county officials had been less than forthcoming about the situations in which cops were using PenLink's systems to surveil Miamians. But in statements sent to the city's procurement department, MPD claims cops will use the service to find missing persons and "violent offenders" throughout the city.

"This highly sophisticated product would be utilized to trap and/or trace violent felony offenders," city officials wrote earlier this year in official procurement documents. "The Pen Link system will allow the City of Miami to be self-sufficient in these endeavors. In cases of major catastrophes and major cases, as in Officer-involved incidents or major violent cases, the City of Miami would request the assistance of our Partner Police Departments. In order to be compatible with our Partner Police Departments; Miami Dade Police Department, FDLE and the United States Secret Service, just to name a few, we would need the Pen Link system. All the local municipalities and Federal Agencies within South Florida utilize the Pen Link system; therefore to give us full compatibility we would need to utilize the same Pen Link system."

Additional city documents spell out the powerfulness of PenLink's PLX system. The city says the software can intercept telecommunications data — meaning phone calls and GPS data from cell towers — as well as IP data, including web search information. City documents state the system is capable of "live interception" and can be rapidly deployed to track moving targets essentially in real time. PenLink's site says the PLX system lets cops easily map out data swiped from cell phones and create charts and graphs of suspects' social networks and location histories. (Among other agencies, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also use PenLink software to track people.)

Police-reform advocates for years, however, have warned that as cell-tracking and spying technology has proliferated, courts and city governments haven't placed enough restrictions or checks on when cops are allowed to remotely snoop through people's phones. Around the turn of the new millennium, cell trackers were mostly the purview of military officials and federal law enforcement agents.

But like most new types of military technology, local police officers have gained increased access to the software in recent years. MPD, for example, has also long used the service Cellebrite, which can extract data saved on phones obtained by the department. PenLink, in contrast, intercepts data sent between phones and nearby cell towers. In 2017, then-CityLab reporter George Joseph noted that phone-data-intercepting technology was generally imprecise and had a habit of sucking up information from innocent users' phones — and that the technology was being disproportionately deployed to surveil people of color.

A PenLink brochure attached to the city's procurement application states that the PLX system can "investigate beyond phone calls"; "collect, analyze, and export massive amounts of social media and internet communication data"; "collect pen register and wiretap intercepts in real-time for tracking, live-monitoring, and analysis"; and "load large quantities of communication data from an array of file types and conveniently store them in a single database." At its meeting tomorrow, the city will debate letting the department purchase the software.

"In order for the City of Miami Police Department to be self-sufficient in carrying out their investigations in a proficient manner without interruption, it is in the best interest of the City to purchase this system," Chief Colina wrote to city officials.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.