The Obama administration has been quietly advising local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology they are using to sweep up basic cell phone data from entire neighborhoods.
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.
Advanced cell phone tracking devices known as StingRays allow police nationwide to home in on suspects and to log individuals present at a given location. But before acquiring a StingRay, state and local police must sign a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI, documents released last week reveal.
One well-known type of this surveillance equipment is known as a Stingray, an innovative way for law enforcement to track cell phones used by suspects and gather evidence. The equipment tricks cell phones into identifying some of their owners’ account information, like a unique subscriber number, and transmitting data to police as if it were a phone company’s tower. That allows police to obtain cell phone information without having to ask for help from service providers, such as Verizon or AT&T, and can locate a phone without the user even making a call or sending a text message.
Stingrays are small mobile devices that trick cell phones into connecting to them as if they were cell phone towers. The technology gives police the ability to track phone movements and intercept both phone calls and text messages of any cell phone within range.
According to the document, police in Tacoma were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation before they could begin conducting surveillance on cell users with a Harris-sold StingRay.
Although the majority of the December 2012 document is redacted, a paragraph from FBI special agent Laura Laughlin to Police of Chief Donald Ramsdell reveals that Tacoma officers were told they couldn’t discuss their use of IMSI-catchers with anyone.
“We have been advised by Harris Corporation of the Tacoma Police Department’s request for acquisition of certain wireless collection equipment/technology manufactured by Harris Corporation,” the FBI letter reads in part. “Consistent with the conditions on the equipment authorization granted to Harris Corporation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), state and local law enforcement agencies must coordinate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to complete this non-disclosure agreement prior to the acquisition and use of the equipment/technology authorized by the FCC authorization.”
Tacoma joins several other police departments across the country that have actively worked to hide their use of cell phone tracking technology.
Emails uncovered by the ACLU last June showed how the U.S. Marshals Service has gone as far as teaching police how to deceive judges when trying to acquire Stringrays. A similar records request by the ACLU even resulted in U.S. Marshals storming the Sarasota Police Department in Florida in order to seize Stingray documents before they reached the public.
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