FBI tracking device found; disassembled

[ifixit] has apparently grown tired of tearing apart Apple’s latest gizmos, and their latest display of un-engineering has a decidedly more federal flair. You may have heard about Yasir Afifi’s discovery of a FBI-installed tracking device on his car back in October of last year. Apparently, the feds abandoned a similar device with activist Kathy Thomas. Wired magazine managed to get their hands on it, and gave it to ifixit to take apart. There’ve even posted a video.

The hardware itself isn’t that remarkable, it’s essentially a GPS receiver designed before the turn of the century paired with a short range wireless transceiver. The whole device is powered by a set of D-sized lithium-thionyl chloride batteries which should be enough juice to run the whole setup for another few decades–long enough to outlast any reasonable expectations of privacy, with freedom and justice for all.

Comments

  1. Pin says:

    The gps is not that old it just uses a active antina and will use difrant satellites to send it corrections so it can be more accurate If u can get a part number on the single chip gps receiver it’s the big shielded package on the gps board I was playing with a gps from Ubox u give it 5 volts and it gives u USB are rs 232 nema data

  2. Scuzz says:

    I’m a bit confused at his statement that it looks like a very complicated antenna. I whole-heartedly disagree! I think it looks like a cheap GPS unit in a housing that keeps it waterproof and in a good location:

    http://www.sparkfun.com/products/465

    I assume that the cable was more than a two-wire connection so that power was getting up there somehow, but I could be completely off-base here.

    Anyway, mildly interesting breakdown, but no real surprises.

  3. alaska says:

    it isn’t powered by alien technology?

  4. Charlie says:

    Wow. What a massively offensive story. Not the technical aspect of it; that is mildly interesting. But the social implications of the U.S. spying on its own citizens really sucks.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Charlie, this news to you?

  6. error404 says:

    @Scuzz: Power for GPS antennas is typically provided as a DC bias on the signal lines, which will be AC coupled to the receive circuitry and amplifier. So standard RF connectors and cables are the norm, as here.

    I’d be interested to see someone try to reverse engineer it and better characterize its capabilities.

  7. Zack says:

    @error404, I’d agree; but I’m mostly curious as to how Wired / ifixit are going to handle the legal ramifications of tampering with US “spy” equipment; and what the law says about PI’s or SO’s doing the same thing for anyone who has $$.

  8. Mike says:

    @Scuzz: active GPS antennas still use two wires, they are powered via DC bias in the same way electret microphones are powered from a 3.5mm jack – the signal wire is hooked up to a power supply (usually via an LC filter to avoid noise from the power supply getting into the receiver), and there is a capacitor just before the receiver itself.

    Some GPS modules have an internal antenna supply, and can automatically switch between active and passive antennas without needing an external decoupling capacitor.

  9. Alex Parting says:

    Looks too big to attach to a stray cat

  10. Jake H says:

    Why is a high-profile environmental activist driving a car?

  11. jim says:

    It might have got nearly 200w in its battery pack, but that doesn’t mean it can power the device for twenty years, just that if the drain is low enough it could potentially remain in standby for that long. I’d be interested to see how long these things last, and I guess they power down if they’re stationary for long enough.

    How she resisted attaching this to a migrating bison, I do not know.

    “We have identified the target. Oh my God, she’s coming right at me. Aaaah!”

  12. Leonard says:

    “paired with a short range wireless transceiver”
    How short range, and who is listening? or are there more than one tranceiver points this device can dump its data to?

  13. adsf says:

    @Jake H

    Because she isn’t an “activist.”

    She’s a domestic terrorist and just pissed she was caught…

  14. Luke says:

    @Zack, not like they are sharing any secrets here. You could build an equivalent device from off the shelf components for a couple hundred bucks and a weekend. There are plenty of tutorials online for creating “tracking devices” that people have used on balloons, bicycles, etc.

  15. Nave says:

    ummmmm, what frequency does it transmit on????

  16. Oren Beck says:

    First- The concept of what’s “Legal” is not a stasis frozen, eternal writ! The way to literally “Hack Society” is found in becoming educated as to how our government *really* works. Then, if you have an informed dislike of what’s being done? Become an Agent of Change.

    Posting articles just like this OP is part of showing truth where it might have been ambushed.

    Make no mistake about this situation. EVERYTHING in your life CAN be somehow used against you. Even if you’re Innocent, that concept of no Ex Post Facto laws may not remain so.

    That above statement is all about things like tracking us or creating Dossiers either overt or covert. See, we are often Naive enough to presume that our society will “never” change. And what’s quite legal today, can be Retconned to make us _all_ guilty of even discussing such things. If you really do not want that becoming a scary reality?

    WE can change it quite ethically and legally thru “Social Hacking” and simple exposures of whats really being done to us. It starts with a GPS tracker under a car. Or a Pocket Phone betraying us. Does “Airplane Mode” always *REALLY* power down all the RF emissions from a phone? Getting scared yet?

    Envision that GPS found by the OP having a covert BT link to..your phone. Naah, not here, can’t happen eh?

    We used to consider Jello Biafra paranoid. Was he?

    Bugs in our teeth may be..already there?

  17. grenadier says:

    Yay for the bill of rights…

  18. Scuzz says:

    @error404 and @Mike:
    Yeah, makes sense, I guess I was just a bit surprised to not see the connectors in any of those ifixit pictures, and I thought it seemed more plausible that it was a multipin.

    Looking more closely at the sparkfun module it looks like it may use a similar antenna on top of the actual GPS module, packaged nicely and small-ly. I’ve never actually worked with an AC transfer mechanism like that, though that definitely seems straightforward enough.

  19. Lowkey says:

    A fun project would be to see if one could listen to these signals and then put up a webpage with an interactive map of who the FBI is listening to. I assume that the signal is encrypted, but if the devices can be obtained (like they obviously can), then the ROM may be dump-able and encryption keys found.

  20. So when did his tracker go to ifixit? According to the wired article, the feds confiscated the device.

  21. HackJack says:

    I would love to get a battery that can power a GPS receiver for 10 years. My cell phone can hardly stay up for 12 hours on full charge.

  22. Grayda says:

    Built with alien technology?

    Hack-a-day: GPS module built from velcro and microwaves, accurate to < 1cm

  23. Michael Chen says:

    I wonder if a fake signal can be generated to tell the FBI your car suddenly moved to the middle of the Atlantic Sea?

  24. Brian says:

    @Michael Chen — You don’t need a fake signal to do that – my cheap POS gps does that semi frequently.

  25. Charlie H says:

    Are they sure this is FBI related? I used to install similar looking devices in used cars for a dealership. They were used for repossession and the dealer could even disable the starter from an office computer so once the car was turned off it couldn’t be started. We usually hid them behind the stereo and would parasite off the stereo power.

  26. Anonymous says:

    is that a 1990 FBI device? it’s looks so huge..

  27. dbear says:

    Next time they’ll just give him a free android or iphone.

    Congratulations! You’ve just won Verizon’s Spring Giveaway! A free Iphone and 1 year free service!

  28. Mckee says:

    Honestly, I’d have been tempted to place it either on the nearest cop car or a few helium baloons (if it wasnt too heavy). Nice to know the police really have our safety at heart, not political policing and privacy invasion.

  29. lwatcdr says:

    you can buy these off the shelf. Nothing too super unusual. Makes me wonder why they didn’t demand it back. Maybe it wasn’t the FBIs.

  30. t&p says:

    If I cough someone doing this I would call the police and national/local news and say someone set me up the bomb!

    The paranoia can go 2 ways for my entertainment!

    There would be such a story later on.

  31. andrew says:

    Not going to lie, this video kinda aggravates me, especially when he says things in awe like “I’ve never seen an antenna like this before” when opening a standard, everyday, run-of-the-mill active GPS antenna.

    Then again, maybe they’re just targeting a more naive audience than us. I just feel the host should have been more knowledgeable.

  32. M4CGYV3R says:

    So now being tracked by the FBI is more insidious than someone planting a Pipe Bomb under your car? Let’s ease up on the hyperbole a little, please?

  33. mjrippe says:

    @John Avitable – The device sent to ifixit was an earlier one (2006?), not the one that Yasir returned to the FBI. Too bad, as his was a more recent version of what they are using.

  34. xorpunk says:

    looks dated even by consumer manufacturing standards.

    want to find a new one? do something government and uneducated citizens don’t like on a noticeable scale xD

  35. Max says:

    The one that has been torn down seemed to use a 433MHz short-range radio to “upload” the data to a nearby agent. Quick tip: buy a 10$ 433MHz RF TX module and keep it powered in your lighter socket (I hope you don’t use a RF car alarm though). They’d have to pull and replace the device to read it. See how often they like to do that…

  36. dredwerker says:

    You could put exploding dye in the case of it and a really loud siren and you could tell who was following you, when they come to get the device read the locations.

    You could record the movements of a taxi and put those same recording on to the device every day. Just to confuse them.

    Also thinking about it you could just put a PIR and IR camera on your car and photo the people concerned coming to change the device. Make sure it sent the pics somewhere so they don’t take your camera. Lights, Camera, FBI :)

  37. iHME says:

    As stated before, it might be interesting to tinker with the said device, like feeding it spoofed gps data instead of the one from its own module.
    Sniff the 433Mhz trafic for it and reverse engineer the protocol used, spoof transmissions with a off the self 433Mhz module or a 40eur/60usd ham tranceiver with opened tx.
    Or use the said tranceiver with a high gain antenna to see if you can grab cordinates of other people.
    All kinds of interesting stuff could be done.
    It would also be amusing to feed the data to arps.fi or just build your own arps tracker.

  38. bacchus says:

    The device is probably replaced on a regular basis, hence her curious comment about it having not been there long, judging by its cleanliness.

    If she can ID “covert” surveillance, and evidently has no problems about confronting them, why doesn’t she just ask them for a lift? It would be environmentally sound, and they couldn’t argue she wasn’t cooperating.

    I’d like a government-supplied car and chauffeur. I wonder how much you should tip a spook?

  39. DoktorJ says:

    Well, if anyone remembers Bernie S, he managed to piss of the Secret Service by distributing surveillance pictures he made of them picking their noses, literally. That’s more than likely why he was targeted at the RNC protest and spent several years, broken bones, and other damage paying for that move. While it might seem fun, it’s seldom a good idea to purposefully piss of the Secret Service or FBI. Also, as far as spoofing the signals, it seems that with a short range transmitter, it should be pretty easy for them to pick up on this, since they have to be tailing you from a fairly short distance to get the data.

  40. Ren says:

    Okay, so the GPS antenna works when it is stuck underneath the car? Why have I been putting mine on the roof? or in the front windshield?

  41. therian says:

    so what can I do to obtain this free parts ?

  42. xorpunk says:

    @therian: hobbyist grade gps or licensed band modules can be had over the net. There is nothing special about this besides the manufacturing which is only slightly better than consumer, but wasteful all the same. The cells are just uncommon doping but buy-able over the net as well..

    Put it with a propeller in a water proof casing with a cell like they used..done

    let me know when they find something that is a resin-cased and looks like an ASIC die with no obvious power supply ^^

  43. Marcin says:

    It must be old device. Now it would be cheaper to write FBI app for android and iphone. In this case suspect will take care of charging device. For sure they must have it by now.
    Revelation will be WOG (wake up on GPS or GSM signal) or PoG (power over GSM) in case suspect takes out battery.

  44. Whatnot says:

    Maybe it was meant to be found, as a form of intimidation.

    Best thing to do is get some flower and put a noticeable amount in it, then send it back >:)

  45. Observations from video: That thing is super old from the looks of the smt components. Late 90’s early 2000’s even. Now they are much smaller and would use a cellular data uplink. They would still use u-blox gps modules though, they are pretty versatile.

    Related: You will soon see your insurance company offering or requiring the same type of device (but cellular) to track speed/mileage/usage for prorated insurance premiums.

    Please report to room 101..

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