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ACLU documents reveal police use of secret cell phone tracking program

No warrants, and no legislative or judicial oversight either

The American Civil Liberties Union has released records it had obtained via Freedom of Information requests from police agencies across the state of Florida, detailing widespread law enforcement use of surveillance technology kept secret not only from ordinary American citizens, but from judges and the court system, too.

This secrecy is allegedly justified in the name of “national security” although, as the ACLU notes in the records it released yesterday, a detailed list of over 250 investigations from just one city's police department showed not a single case related to national security.

And although yesterday's ACLU investigation only looked at Florida, state and local law enforcement agencies in at least 20 states and Washington D.C. use this secret surveillance technology.

It's called Stingray, and its tracks people's whereabouts (more specifically, it tracks the whereabouts of people's phones) though the use of devices called “cell site simulators.” As the label suggests, such devices simulate cell phone towers in a way that forces cell phones in the area to broadcast information which can be used to locate and identify them.

How extensively does law enforcement use this program? The ACLU notes that Florida alone has spent more than $3 million on Stingrays and related equipment since 2008.

“The documents paint a detailed picture of police using an invasive technology — one that can follow you inside your house — in many hundreds of cases and almost entirely in secret.

“The secrecy is not just from the public, but often from judges who are supposed to ensure that police are not abusing their authority. Partly relying on that secrecy, police have been getting authorization to use Stingrays based on the low standard of “relevance,” not a warrant based on probable cause as required by the Fourth Amendment.”

Little oversight

In other words, police keep information about this program secret not only from the public they presumably serve, but from the judges who presumably are supposed to oversee those police to ensure their behavior stays within legal and constitutional guidelines.

Indeed, authorities would sooner let an armed robber avoid jail than reveal any details of how they use Stingray. On the same day the ACLU released its records about Stingray use in Florida, the Washington Post ran a story (based in part on the ACLU's revelations) illustrating that:

[Tadrae McKenzie] and two buddies robbed a small-time pot dealer of $130 worth of weed using BB guns. Under Florida law, that was robbery with a deadly weapon, with a sentence of at least four years in prison. But before trial, his defense team detected investigators’ use of a secret surveillance tool. ... In an unprecedented move, a state judge ordered the police to show the device — a cell-tower simulator sometimes called a StingRay — to the attorneys. Rather than show the equipment, the state offered McKenzie a plea bargain.

McKenzie took the plea: six month's probation, no jailtime.

Even elected officials are unable to learn details about the program. Last December, the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis ran an expose about a then-two-year-old agreement between the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the FBI to keep information about the tracking program secret from the public:

“The revelation comes after a lengthy attempt to obtain contracts and nondisclosure agreements for the FBI’s cellphone tracking devices, known as StingRay II and KingFish. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) has long resisted disclosure requests from the public, news media and even the Minnesota Legislature, saying that doing so would violate trade secrets and expose investigative techniques that could be exploited by criminals.....”

The “trade secrets” mentioned belong to Harris Corp., the Florida-based company that manufactures the StingRay and similar cell phone tracking devices. There's a lot of money at stake; a single StingRay sells for anywhere from $68,000 to $134,000, according to Department of Justice documents quoted by the Washington Post.

The ACLU's records show that one Stingray customer, the city of Tallahasee, went on to use its Stingrays in 250 investigations over the six years spanning mid-2007 to early in 2014. As the Post noted, “That’s 40 or so instances a year in a city of 186,000, a surprisingly high rate given that the StingRay’s manufacturer, Harris Corp., has told the Federal Communications Commission that the device is used only in emergencies.”

The ACLU's records also show that police have not been obtaining warrants before using these cell phone trackers to determine peoples' locations. The full Florida Stingray records collected by the ACLU are available online here.

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