Update, Aug. 28: Adds Tacoma police statement.
Humvees and body armor, so jarring to see deployed in Ferguson, Mo., aren’t the only concern when it comes to the militarization of U.S. police forces.
The Tacoma News Tribune reported that police in Tacoma, Wash., bought—and quietly used for five years—surveillance equipment that can sweep up records of every mobile telephone call, text message, and data transfer up to a half-mile from the device.
Known as a Stingray and manufactured by Harris (HRS), a Pentagon contractor based in Melbourne, Fla., the device is small enough to be carried in a car. It tricks mobile phones into thinking it’s a cell tower, drawing information, the paper said. Federal grants, including one from the Department of Homeland Security, were used to buy the equipment, according to public records the newspaper obtained.
Use of the technology is widespread across the U.S. More than 40 law enforcement agencies in 17 states have similar monitoring equipment, known as “cell site simulators” or “IMSI catchers,” says the American Civil Liberties Union. Oakland, Calif., has had a Stingray since 2007, when an annual report cited 21 electronic surveillance arrests, the group says.
The controversy in Tacoma, a city of 200,000 south of Seattle, follows President Obama’s decision in the wake of the Ferguson protests to order a review of U.S. programs that fund military equipment for local law enforcement. Attention so far has focused on rifles, night-vision devices, and additional military-style weapons carried by police in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb.
For years, privacy rights groups have also warned about the potential for abuse of mobile-phone monitoring equipment, which can gather information about bystanders as well as suspects. “It’s like kicking down the doors of 50 homes and searching 50 homes because they don’t know where the bad guy is,” Chris Soghoian, principal technologist at the ACLU, told the News Tribune.
Tacoma Assistant Police Chief Kathy McAlpine defended use of the equipment to the newspaper, saying it’s deployed to locate suspects wanted for crimes such as homicide, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and drug trafficking. Police don’t collect the contents of voice calls, texts or data transfers, she told the paper, and the device is only used when judges sign a court order.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit based in San Francisco, claims many courts have too routinely authorized use of the powerful technology. The group says phones can be tracked even when they’re not making a call and often when powered down. The only way to avoid tracking is to remove the battery, or to do something even more unthinkable: Leave the phone at home.