Local police departments across the country have been using a device known as a “Stingray
” to mimic a cell phone tower and trick cell phones in the surrounding area into reporting information such as text messages, call log information, exact locations, and other data. The device receives information from all phones that report to it, not just a specific phone authorized by a search warrant. In the process of using the device for one reason, the police are spying on all citizens in the area.
The American Civil Liberties Union believes
that departments are specifically avoiding obtaining search warrants because of non-disclosure agreements signed with the manufacturer of the devices. During an appeal process
, it was learned that the Tallahassee Police Department employed the technology over 200 times prior to 2010, without informing judges or obtaining warrants. The practice has continued over the following four years.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Commissioner Gerald Bailey denied the existence of a non-disclosure agreement with the manufacturer of the device, stating that his agency only had a similar agreement with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Later, as pressure mounted, the agency located the non-disclosure agreement he claimed did not exist. He stated that the document was irrelevant because the agreement with the FBI takes precedence. Speaking on the existence of the denied document, he said
It doesn’t change anything.
The ACLU points
to a case involving a missing cell phone as proof that the agreements do matter. In a statement on the watchdog’s website, the civil liberties group reported that the Tallahassee Police Department used a device to determine the whereabouts of a missing phone.
They then knocked on the door, asked permission to enter and, when the suspect’s girlfriend refused, forced their way inside, conducted a search, and arrested the suspect in his home. Police opted not to get warrants authorizing either their use of the stingray or the apartment search. Incredibly, this was apparently because they had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the company that gave them the device. The police seem to have interpreted the agreement to bar them even from revealing their use of stingrays to judges, who we usually rely on to provide oversight of police investigations.
When the suspect’s lawyer tried to ask police how they tracked the phone to his client’s house, the government refused to answer. A judge eventually forced the government to explain its conduct to the lawyer, but only after closing the courtroom to the public and sealing the transcript of the proceedings so the public and the press could never read it.
The ACLU filed records requests
with agencies to obtain more information about the devices. The Sunrise Police Department, in direct defiance of Florida public records laws, issued a Glomar response refusing to confirm or deny the existence of the device. An online document
shows that the department recently considered getting a $65,000 upgrade to the spy device it will not confirm it possesses. FDLE reportedly responded to the request with heavily redacted documents.
A police department in Tucson, Arizona has also been employing the technology, and the non-disclosure agreement states
The City of Tucson shall not discuss, publish, release or disclose any information pertaining to the Products covered under this NDA to any third party individual, corporation, or other entity, including any affiliated or unaffiliated State, County, City, Town or Village, or other governmental entity without the prior written consent of Harris
The ACLU states
that they have uncovered
a disturbing pattern of police departments across the country deliberately concealing basic information about their use of Stingrays from the public. This technology raises serious questions under the Fourth Amendment. The public is entitled to full disclosure of records so it can engage in an informed debate about the legality and wisdom of these devices, and provide oversight of their use.
The ACLU admits that in some instances the technology could be beneficial. One such example would be a rescue team with a fire department searching for a missing person
in a wilderness area where cell phone reception does not exist. The device could simulate a tower in the area and retrieve the missing person’s location.
Michael Pendleton, a Tallahassee-based activist said
It's pretty significant that the police are using this technology and are under contract with Harris, signing a nondisclosure agreement that interfered and prevented proper search and arrest procedures.