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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.