In what is likely not an isolated incident, investigators at one Florida police department used powerful cellphone-tracking technology on at least 200 occasions without ever notifying judges or seeking warrants for the intrusive surveillance. The department claimed it was unable to obtain a warrant for the cellphone tracking because it acquired the tracking technology on loan from a manufacturer and it signed a nondisclosure agreement.
The American Civil Liberties Union uncovered the warrantless cellphone tracking during an appeal in a 2008 sexual battery case in Tallahassee that involved a stolen cellphone.
During the proceedings, authorities explained how investigators were able to track the defendant, who had stolen his victim’s cellphone, by tricking the device into sending location data with the help of tracking technology.
“They then knocked on the door, asked permission to enter and, when the suspect’s girlfriend refused, forced their way inside, conducted a search, and arrested the suspect in his home. Police opted not to get warrants authorizing either their use of the stingray or the apartment search,” ACLU explained.
One of the most shocking aspects of the case, however, is how police interpreted the nondisclosure agreement signed with the private company for the stingray device as permission to bypass judicial oversight.
“The police seem to have interpreted the agreement to bar them even from revealing their use of stingrays to judges, who we usually rely on to provide oversight of police investigations,” according to ACLU.
While a specific device or manufacturer name did not come up during the proceedings, the ACLU indicated that the technology was likely a “stingray made by the Florida-based Harris Corporation.”
“Also known as ‘cell site simulators,’ stingrays impersonate cell phone towers, prompting phones within range to reveal their precise locations and information about all of the calls and text messages they send and receive. When in use, stingrays sweep up information about innocent people and criminal suspects alike,” ACLU said.
The ACLU noted that the use of similar technology is increasing among law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation. Unfortunately, whether police obtain warrants in every case is unknown.
Public records on 125 agencies in 33 States obtained by USA Today, Gannet and various television news stations revealed widespread use of the technology in a USA Today piece late last year:
* At least 25 police departments own a Stingray, a suitcase-size device that costs as much as $400,000 and acts as a fake cell tower. The system, typically installed in a vehicle so it can be moved into any neighborhood, tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeding data to police. In some states, the devices are available to any local police department via state surveillance units. The federal government funds most of the purchases, via anti-terror grants.
* About one in four law-enforcement agencies have used a tactic known as a “tower dump,” which gives police data about the identity, activity and location of any phone that connects to the targeted cellphone towers over a set span of time, usually an hour or two. A typical dump covers multiple towers, and wireless providers, and can net information from thousands of phones.
* Thirty-six more police agencies refused to say whether they’ve used either tactic. Most denied public records requests, arguing that criminals or terrorists could use the information to thwart important crime-fighting and surveillance techniques.
ACLU officials say that they are using the Florida case to gain more information about how and when the devices are used to track cellphones at agencies nationwide.
“Potentially unconstitutional government surveillance on this scale should not remain hidden from the public just because a private corporation desires secrecy. And it certainly should not be concealed from judges,” the group said.