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U.S. police might be tracking cell phones with StingRay device

The rectangular device which fits into a suitcase can intercept a cellphone signal by simulating a cellphone tower. The device can retrieve the phone’s texts, calls, emails and other data. Such data can be used in court, as per approval received by prosecutors.

Law enforcement agencies are using several new digital tools, of which cell site simulators are only the latest. Video cameras, drones, licence plate detectors, phone record scanners and other such tools have found resistance among some communities due to from municipalities and legislators on privacy issues.

The new cell site simulators also come with nondisclosure agreements for the police departments that choose to purchase and use them. The non-disclosures are overseen by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which says such measures are necessary to prevent terrorists and criminals from circumventing the system. The technology is made by the defense contractor Harris Corporation.

According to Business Insider, both state and local police departments may be utilizing StingRay in New York, Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. Local police departments may be utilizing StingRay in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, Michigan, Arizona, California, Idaho, Washington and Alaska. The situation in other states is not known. Unlike many other phone surveillance methods, StingRay can also be used to snoop on any cellphone in the area where it is used, and not just the target one.

“It might be a totally legitimate business interest, or maybe they’re trying to keep people from realizing there are bigger privacy problems,” said Orin S. Kerr, a privacy law expert at George Washington University. “What’s the secret that they’re trying to hide?”

Santa Clara County sheriff, Laurie Smith recommended the purchase of the device three years ago, at a cost of $502,000. When asked for details, she offered no technical specifications and acknowledged she had not seen a product demonstration.

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“So, just to be clear,” Joe Simitian, a county supervisor, said, “we are being asked to spend $500,000 of taxpayers’ money and $42,000 a year thereafter for a product for the name brand which we are not sure of, a product we have not seen, a demonstration we don’t have, and we have a nondisclosure requirement as a precondition. You want us to vote and spend money,” he continued, but “you can’t tell us more about it.”

However, Santa Clara County went ahead and voted for the purchase 4 to 1, and simultaneously voted to adopt a privacy policy. When county supervisors asked Harris Corporation for a demonstration, the company refused, saying only badged officials would be allowed. The company also refused to show the supervisors a copy of the non-disclosure agreements.

“Not only is there a nondisclosure agreement, for the time being, at least, we can’t even see the nondisclosure agreement,” Mr. Simitian said. “We may be able to see it later, I don’t know.”

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