A Local Police State
Now the local police departments are spying
on you without a search warrant.
(USA TODAY) - The National Agency isn't the only government entity secretly collecting data from people's cellphones. Local police are increasingly scooping it up, too.
Armed with new technologies, including mobile devices that tap into cellphone data in real time, dozens of local and state police agencies are capturing information about thousands of cellphone users at a time, whether they are targets of an investigation or not, according to public records obtained by USA TODAY and Gannett newspapers and TV stations.
The records, from more than 125 police agencies in 33 states, reveal:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) say the swelling ability by even small-town police departments to easily and quickly obtain large amounts of cellphone data raises questions about the erosion of people's privacy as well as their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
"I don't think that these devices should never be used, but at the same time, you should clearly be getting a warrant," said Alan Butler of EPIC.
The Stingray can grab data from cellphones in real time and without going through the wireless service providers involved. Neither tactic — tower dumps or the Stingray devices — captures the content of calls or other communication, according to police.
Typically used to hunt a single phone's location, the system intercepts data from all phones within a mile, or farther, depending on terrain and antennas.
The cell-tracking systems cost as much as $400,000, depending on when they were bought and what add-ons they have. The latest upgrade, code-named "Hailstorm," is spurring a wave of upgrade requests.
Initially developed for military and spy agencies, the Stingrays remain a guarded secret by law enforcement and the manufacturer, Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla. The company would not answer questions about the systems, referring reporters to police agencies. Most police aren't talking, either, partly because Harris requires buyers to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
"Any idea of having adequate oversight of the use of these devices is hampered by secrecy," says Butler, who sued the FBI for records about its Stingray systems. Under court order, the FBI released thousands of pages, though most of the text is blacked out.
"When this technology disseminates down to local government and local police, there are not the same accountability mechanisms in place. You can see incredible potential for abuses," American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Catherine Crump says.