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Criminal Justice

Counterterrorism funds and tools are seeping into local policing.

A new report details police departments’ growing use of “stingray” devices to track mobile phones, often without court review.

According to a new in-depth report from USA Today’s Brad Heath, local law enforcement agencies across the United States are increasingly turning to sophisticated (and often secret) high-tech surveillance tools called “stingrays” to investigate and solve petty crimes. The revelations lend yet more evidence to a national trend: the use of counterterrorism tools and funds for local law enforcement purposes.

A “stingray” or IMSI catcher, is a device that mimics a cellphone tower, prompting nearby phones to reveal their location and registration data. The device allows police to electronically search for and pinpoint particular cell signals, while also vacuuming up data from hundreds to thousands of bystanders. They don’t get a warrant first, and may not even admit in court that they’re using these machines

The news that local law enforcement agencies have been able to purchase — and use — stingrays is not new. What is new, as the USA Today report makes clear, is how stingrays are being used in practice, and at what scale. USA Today reports that although a police “log shows the police used cell-site simulators in at least 176 homicide cases, 118 shootings and 47 rapes since 2008,” a Baltimore detective recently “testified that officers had used cell-site simulators more than 4,300 times since 2007, a figure that easily dwarfs the tallies reported by the few police departments that have released details of their usage.” (emphasis added).

The paper’s investigation “found [that] police in Baltimore and other cities used the phone tracker … to locate the perpetrators of routine street crimes.” The texture of some of those smaller crimes is revealing:

Records show police used a cell-site simulator to track down a woman charged with stealing credit cards from a garage and using them to pay two months’ rent at a self-storage unit. They used it to hunt for a stolen car and to find a woman who sent hundreds of “threatening and annoying” text messages to a Baltimore man. In each case, prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges or agreed to pretrial diversion.

This is part of a broader pattern of surveillance mission creep: Oakland was poised to use counterterrorism tools and funds to create a 24-hour surveillance “Domain Awareness Center” to support its broader community surveillance efforts. Federal authorities relied on drugs as a rationale to justify NSA-style dragnet surveillance, secretly paying AT&T to build a massive database of calling records for domestic law enforcement use. And fusion centers — which were initially created in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and combine federal, state, and local surveillance data for counterterrorism efforts — now largely work in support for local law enforcement.

This is part of a broader pattern of surveillance mission creep.

Commercial and government secrecy make it that much harder to hold anyone accountable for these problems. As we’ve noted, police departments across the country have signed non-disclosure agreements with the Harris Corporation, the leading manufacturer of stingray devices, promising not to tell anyone — even other government agencies — about their use of the new technology. And as the USA Today report makes clear, that type of secrecy is problematic: defense attorneys were routinely not notified of surveillance via stingrays, even though Maryland’s state law requires them to be told about electronic surveillance. And even if they were notified that the surveillance occurred, they were only told that police used “‘advanced directional finding equipment’ or ‘sophisticated electronic equipment’ to find a suspect.”

Limited transparency into how police technologies work can make it hard for people to fully understand and evaluate how those new technologies are being used in their communities. But the secrecy regarding stingray use takes the lack of transparency a step further: if individuals don’t even know (or are purposefully not told) what is happening in the first instance, they can’t complain about it.

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