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Cops used cell phone surveillance tool 200 times without court’s permission

Published time: March 04, 2014 21:10
Reuters / Lucas Jackson

Reuters / Lucas Jackson

​The American Civil Liberties Union wants to learn more about any secret surveillance gadgets used by Florida law enforcement agencies after uncovering proof that police there relied on one type of spy tool upwards of 200 times without permission.

Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, wrote on Monday this week that his organization has filed public records requests with nearly 30 police and sheriffs’ departments across the Sunshine State in hopes of having documents unsealed that would disclose how those agencies use certain surveillance tools to track down cell phones.

Police agencies across the country are increasingly relying on specialized devices known as “stingrays” to conduct investigations, but the powerful tools aren’t discussed in public that much. Much to the ACLU’s surprise, however, officers in Florida have been using such tools without even the oversight or authorization of the court, raising new concerns about exactly how rampant this type of surveillance actually is.

When implemented properly, a stingray can mimic the behavior of a cell phone tower like the ones managed by major telecommunication companies, tricking mobile devices into sending signals that could then be used to track down a handheld phone to a physical location within just a few feet.

Privacy advocates aren’t pleased by these devices, though, since they allow law enforcement to suck up huge chunks of information about potentially thousands of innocent people at once. And according to the ACLU’s Wessler, Florida police have been playing with these gadgets just about completely unchecked.

“As revealed in a recent opinion of a Florida appeals court, Tallahassee police used an unnamed device — almost certainly a stingray — to track a stolen cell phone to a suspect’s apartment,” he wrote on Monday this week.

A stingray-like device absolutely aided the police in finding that stolen cell phone and the suspect responsible, and the cops raided the residence in order to make an arrest. Wessler wrote that they didn’t bother obtaining a warrant in order to enter the apartment, though, nor did they ask for the court’s authorization to set up a fake cell tower.

In fact, Wessler revealed, the fact that the Tallahassee Police Department actually had such a device at their disposable was something that was supposed to be kept under wraps.

“Police opted not to get warrants authorizing either their use of the stingray or the apartment search. Incredibly, this was apparently because they had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the company that gave them the device,” he 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.”

This was far from an isolated incident, though. Wessler wrote that only when the case was appealed later on was it revealed that TPD turned on their stingray at least 200 times to collect information, without once ever asking for a warrant from a judge or magistrate.

“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,” Wessler wrote. “That’s why we have asked the Florida court that originally sealed the transcript to now make it available to the public. And that’s also why we have asked police departments throughout Florida to tell us whether they use stingrays, what rules they have in place to protect innocent third parties from unjustified invasions of privacy, and whether they obtain warrants from judges before deploying the devices.”