Device captures private cell data from innocent third-parties not involved in investigation
March 3, 2014
Florida police used a cell phone tracking device at least 200 times without a warrant because they conspired with the device manufacturer to keep its use a secret, according to the ACLU.
Through a recent motion for public access, the ACLU determined that at least one Florida police department never told judges about its use of the cell phone tracking device, known as a “stingray,” because the department signed a non-disclosure agreement with the stingray’s manufacturer to keep its use from being publicly known.
The manufacturer, which the ACLU said was likely a Florida-based company, also retained ownership of its stingrays and only let the department borrow them, further aiding in its secrecy.
The stingray, also called a “cell tower simulator,” determines the location of a targeted cell phone by impersonating a cell tower, which tricks the targeted phone – and non-targeted cell phones in the same range – into transmitting its precise location and phone records to the stingray.
“When in use, stingrays sweep up information about innocent people and criminal suspects alike,” Nathan Freed Wessler, an ACLU attorney, reported.
The ACLU learned about the department’s use of the stingray through an ongoing court case entitled Florida v. Thomas, in which police used the device to track a stolen cell phone to the suspect’s apartment.
After forcing their way inside the apartment, the police conducted a search of the residence, found the stolen phone and arrested the suspect.
Yet the police never obtained a warrant for the search or for its use of the stingray.
“This was apparently because they had signed a non-disclosure agreement with the company that gave them the device,” Wessler wrote. “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.”
“Potentially unconstitutional government surveillance on this scale should not remain hidden from the public just because a private corporation desires secrecy,” he added. “And it certainly should not be concealed from judges.”
And, according to the ACLU, other police departments are also using stingrays secretly in the same fashion, joining an ever growing list of government entities infringing upon the Fourth Amendment.
Last week it was revealed that officials in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan began working with local police to place surveillance cameras in every neighborhood.
“We are recording images that a police officer would see if he or she were standing in the same place,” the township’s director of the Office of Community Standards, Mike Radzik, said.
And several months prior, a city in New Jersey decided to counter personnel reductions in its police force by placing the public under constant surveillance.