Steven Wishnia , December 24, 2014
A San Diego civil-rights organization is suing city police to get information about how much it is using “StingRay” cell-phone-surveillance devices that can track all phones carried and calls made or received in the area near them.
“We believe the San Diego Police Department has an obligation to tell San Diego citizens that it is using this invasive technology and to describe the steps it is taking, if any, to protect citizens’ privacy rights,” First Amendment Coalition head Peter Scheer said in a statement Dec. 16, after the group filed the suit in California Superior Court,.
The coalition knows that city police have the technology, but the department has refused to give out any information on how it is being used. In October, when the coalition requested “documents sufficient to show guidelines, procedures, or restrictions on the San Diego Police Department’s use of the device” and copies of legal documents submitted to obtain judicial authorization for its use, all it got back was a heavily redacted copy of a purchase order showing that the city Office of Homeland Security had spent $33,000 on five items from the Florida-based Harris Corporation, the StingRay’s manufacturer. A department official said the redacted parts “would reveal security or intelligence information,” and if any documents about how it uses the devices existed, they would too.
The StingRay is an International Mobile Subscriber Identity catcher (IMSI), which imitate cell-phone towers to get nearby mobile phones to connect to them. They the can be used to capture and intercept the contents of communications from all those phones, including their location, calls made or received, text messages, and Internet activity.
Harris Corporation’s contracts with government agencies who buy StingRays include a non-disclosure agreement that says they can’t disclose any information pertaining to “any Protected Product.” If they receive a formal request for public records, the agreement says they’re supposed to notify Harris and help it challenge the request in court.
“Without having basic information about whether they even have the technology, let alone how they’re using it… how do we have that conversation about the merits of surveilling citizens?” First Amendment Coalition attorney Kelly Aviles told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “This isn’t just a technology that focuses on the subject of the investigation. It sweeps up information from all of our cell phones.”
The San Diego City Attorney’s office responded with a statement that the U.S. Department of Justice has directed it not to disclose information about the equipment, “because to do so would potentially endanger the lives and physical safety of law enforcement officers and adversely impact criminal and national security investigations.”
Aviles said there are legitimate questions about how to balance free-speech and privacy rights with the need for public safety with regards to police use of the devices, but they can’t “be intelligently debated if you don’t have the basic information about what they’re doing.”
Meanwhile, activists in Chicago and other cities suspect that police there are using StingRays to monitor calls made during protests about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. In Chicago, a recording of communications with the department’s “fusion center” during a Dec. 5 demonstration found an officer telling headquarters, “Yeah, one of the girls, an organizer here, she’s been on her phone a lot. You guys picking up any information, uh, where they’re going, possibly?” He got the response “Yeah, we’ll keep an eye on it, we’ll let you know if we hear anything.”
Protesters in New York and Los Angeles have tweeted photos of what they say are StingRay devices.
The American Civil Liberties Union says that at least 47 law-enforcement agencies in 19 states, including Chicago and Illinois, have acquired cell-phone tracking devices, and others may be borrowing them.
Chicago police, responding to a lawsuit by privacy-rights activist Freddy Martinez, admitted earlier this year that they had spent more than $300,000 buying StingRays in 2008 and 2009. Martinez told the Chicago Sun-Times in June that protesters at the NATO summit there in 2012 became suspicious that they were being tracked because their phones were depleting their battery power unusually quickly. Tracking systems force phones to register with them at maximum power to retain a strong signal, he explained.