Another Privacy Concern: Police Spying on Cell Phones

Tools meant to prevent terrorism intrude on mobile privacy

Freddy Martinez, a 27-year-old systems administrator, was in Chicago’s Daley Plaza last February protesting National Security Agency surveillance programs when a sedan with the green-lettered license plates of an unmarked police vehicle pulled up nearby. He’d noticed trouble with dropped calls at previous demonstrations, including the 2012 NATO summit. He opened an app on his phone that spots nearby cellular transmitters and saw a new signal. He wondered if it might be coming from the car.

Martinez filed a request under state public records laws for information about cell phone surveillance equipment used by the Chicago Police Department. In April the department produced invoices for military-grade spy gear that identify and track cell phones in real time. The department declined to say more, citing exemptions under the Homeland Security Act and the Arms Control Export Act. In September, Martinez sued in Illinois state court seeking details about how the department has used the equipment. “Whether you think this is good or bad technology for the police to have, the public is entitled to some sense of how it’s being used,” says Matthew Topic, Martinez’s lawyer. Chicago police declined to comment on pending litigation.

In the past decade, local law enforcement agencies have spent millions on sophisticated surveillance tools using grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which has showered more than $35 billion on cities, counties, and states for terrorism prevention and disaster preparedness. Funding has also come from federal drug enforcement grants and nonprofits that fundraise for police departments.

Civil liberties advocates say the technology intrudes on the activities of innocent people, not just criminal suspects. Police can use the devices without anyone knowing—and without having to get approval from judges, as they would to obtain phone records. “We’re talking about really sophisticated, invasive technology being used with next to no oversight by local cops,” says Christopher Soghoian, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.

One of the main beneficiaries is Harris, a Melbourne (Fla.) defense contractor. The company is authorized by the Federal Communications Commission to sell a cell phone tracking tool known as the StingRay. The suitcase-size devices send signals that mimic cell towers, tricking phones as far as a mile away into transmitting identifying information. Chicago spent at least $150,000 on StingRay equipment, including software upgrades and antennas, according to the documents released in response to Martinez’s request. Houston, San Francisco, and Miami have cell phone tracking devices made by Harris, too. The company, which also makes military radios and manages air traffic control systems for the Federal Aviation Administration, routinely refuses to discuss the StingRay. “We refer everything back to the law enforcement agencies that are reportedly using them,” says spokesman Jim Burke.

At least 44 police forces across 18 states have cell phone surveillance gear, and others borrow it from federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to the ACLU. Police in Tacoma, Wash., told city officials they planned to use their StingRay to detect cell phone-detonated bombs like those often seen in Iraq. City council members and judges were surprised to learn police use it about three times a month in routine investigations, according to the Tacoma News Tribune. Once, it was used to recover a stolen city laptop. Officials told the newspaper they had confidence in the department’s ability to manage the technology. “If our law enforcement need access to information to prevent crime or keep us safe, that’s a legitimate use of the technology,” said Mayor Marilyn Strickland.

Few guidelines exist for governing the use of cell phone trackers, says Brian Owsley, an assistant professor at Indiana Tech Law School. As a federal magistrate judge in Texas, he denied a request from the DEA to use the StingRay in a 2012 drug trafficking case because the agency offered no plan for protecting innocent people from being monitored.

In other cases, authorities have kept cell phone surveillance secret from judges. Police in Tallahassee, Fla., used StingRays more than 200 times without seeking warrants, according to testimony in a sexual battery and theft case. Police found the defendant by tracking the victim’s mobile phone. A Florida appeals court last year threw out the conviction, saying it violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. “There’s no doubt somebody’s saying, ‘We don’t have time to get a court order, but we’re going to find out who’s at this protest,’ ” says Owsley.


    The bottom line: Local police operating with little oversight from courts or elected officials can trace private cell phones.

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