The recent story about the US Marshals Service stepping in to prevent the ACLU from obtaining documents related to the Sarasota (FL) Police Department’s ownership and use of cell tower spoofers is apparently not an isolated instance. According to an AP report, the US government is actively inserting itself into the “discussion” by ensuring no one gets to talk about the controversial devices.
The Obama administration has been quietly advising local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology they are using to sweep up basic cellphone data from entire neighborhoods, The Associated Press has learned.
Citing security reasons, the U.S. has intervened in routine state public records cases and criminal trials regarding use of the technology. This has resulted in police departments withholding materials or heavily censoring documents in rare instances when they disclose any about the purchase and use of such powerful surveillance equipment.
Beyond the obvious negative impact on the much-vaunted “transparency” this administration claims to personify, there’s also the new disturbing level of overreach — the US government actively interfering with state-level Freedom of Information requests. In addition to the restrictive non-disclosure agreements that law enforcement agencies must sign when purchasing Stingray devices (and these agencies’ general reluctance to share surveillance equipment info with the public), the government itself is taking an active role in erecting a wall between the public and its public servants.
Interviews, court records and public-records requests show the Obama administration is asking agencies to withhold common information about the equipment, such as how the technology is used and how to turn it on. That pushback has come in the form of FBI affidavits and consultation in local criminal cases.
Harris, the largest manufacturer of cell tower spoofers, specifically directs law enforcement to consult with the FBI during the purchase process, as well as before deploying the devices. The company claims this is all above board because it’s “regulated” by its status as a government contractor. That might mean something if it wasn’t so closely aligned with these government agencies’ desire to keep the technology secret.
And, of course, the government has used its go-to defenses to justify its secrecy efforts. Above, it mentioned “security.” A supporting affadavit filed by an FBI agent in a Freedom of Information lawsuit adds another:
A court case challenging the public release of information from the Tucson Police Department includes an affidavit from an FBI special agent, Bradley Morrison, who said the disclosure would “result in the FBI’s inability to protect the public from terrorism and other criminal activity because through public disclosures, this technology has been rendered essentially useless for future investigations.”
Morrison said revealing any information about the technology would violate a federal homeland security law about information-sharing and arms-control laws…
Once you strip out all the panicky trappings, the FBI is basically asserting that it, and the law enforcement agencies it’s speaking in support of, should be allowed to do what they like with zero accountability. These agencies want to have the ability to collect massive amounts of data without being slowed by warrant requests or minimization processes.
These exposure fears are unfounded, and those using them to justify withholding information know this. This secrecy has been used to seal returned warrants and court orders on closed investigations, giving lie to the claim that these agencies are concerned about damaging current and future investigations. And, realistically, the only way terrorists or criminals are going to be able to completely avoid Stingray surveillance is to not use or carry cell phones, something that seems highly unlikely. For this to be any use to them, they would have to know in advance where it’s being deployed and when.
The real reason behind the collaborative burial of information is the agencies’ desire to do what they want without limitations or paper trails. This sort of behavior should be an indicator of a law enforcement agency that’s gone rogue, rather than an all-too-common collaborative effort between local and national government agencies.