Last week we reported on a covert practice now employed by local police in the US to surreptitiously track cell phone locations from inside one’s house. Using a device called a Stingray, which is a portable cell tower affixed to a police vehicle, authorities have vacuumed up cellphone data from entire neighbourhoods- and usually without a warrant.
Now it turns out that police in Florida, at the request of the US Marshals Service, have been deliberately deceiving judges and defendants about their use of this controversial surveillance tool according to newly obtained emails.
In these emails, the officers using the Stingrays have been misleading judges in the application process for warrants by telling them information about the location of the suspect was obtained from “confidential sources”, rather than revealing information was obtained from Stingray “hoovering.”
Stingrays simulate a cellphone tower and trick any nearby mobile devices into connecting with them- thereby revealing their location. When connected to the Stingray, it can see and record their unique ID numbers and traffic data, too.
A popular model of the Stingray, the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catcher is manufactured by the Harris Corporation in Florida. They are apparently complicit in the deceit of judges in that they have made law enforcement agencies sign a non-disclosure agreement explicitly prohibiting them from telling anyone, including government bodies, about the use of this clandestine snooping device.
This ACLU map is based on a list of the federal law enforcement agencies known to use Stingray technology throughout the United States. View the interactive map here.
Hence, these mass surveillance devices have largely stayed out of the public eye. In fact, most citizens are unaware of their existence. The Associated Press reported last week that the Obama administration has been telling local cops to keep information on Stingrays from the news media, even though their knowledge should be in the public domain. The AP noted:
“Federal involvement in local open records proceedings is unusual. It comes at a time when President Barack Obama has said he welcomes a debate on government surveillance and called for more transparency about spying in the wake of disclosures about federal surveillance programs.”
In this category of federal involvement come the disclosures of the emails from the US Marshals service to Florida police. But the emails released last week show police in Florida are going even further to conceal their use of the equipment when seeking probable cause warrants to search facilities where a suspect is located and thereafter deceiving the courts.
The initial email which bears the subject line “Trap and Trace Confidentiality”, was sent by Sarasota police Sgt. Kenneth Castro to colleagues at the North Port (FL) Police Department. It was sent pursuant to Assistant State Attorney Craig Schaefer contacting police to express concern over an application for a probable cause warrant filed by a department detective. The application, Castro advises, should be revised to obfuscate the means used to obtain surveillance information. Specifically, he should exclude use of the surveillance equipment- a stingray.
“In the past”, Castro writes, “ and at the request of the U.S. Marshalls (sic), the investigative means utilized to locate the suspect have not been revealed so that we may continue to utilize this technology without the knowledge of the criminal element. In reports or depositions we simply refer to the assistance as ‘received information from a confidential source regarding the location of the suspect’. To date this has not been challenged, since it is not an integral part of the actual crime that occurred.” He further writes, “If this is in fact one of your cases, could you please entertain either having the Detective submit a new PCA (probable cause app) and seal the old one, or at minimum instruct the detective for future cases, regarding the fact that it is unnecessary to provide investigative means to anyone outside of law enforcement, especially in a public document.”
The circumstances under which this became public knowledge also warrant revealing. Before the emails became public, under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) petition by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they were surreptitiously carted off by the US Marshals in an obvious attempt to prevent their disclosure. ACLU staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler characterized the move by the Marshals Service as “truly extraordinary and beyond the worst transparency violations” the group has seen regarding documents detailing police use of the technology.
What is worrisome for the future of freedom and privacy is that these actions by the government could not be taking place in a vacuum. They have to be sanctioned or aided and abetted by a broader conspiracy, namely the whole of federal government. No matter how much President Obama talks about how he has “maintained a healthy skepticism toward our surveillance programs”, he is in fact failing the populace with his tacit agreement with the furtive government practices. It seems that the Most Transparent Administration in History is a sham in this regard.