Law Enforcement Agencies All Over California Have Been Secretly Using Stingray Devices

from the fourth-amendment...-we-hardly-knew-ye dept

More documents have been uncovered (via FOI requests) that show local law enforcement agencies in California have been operating cell phone tower spoofers (stingray devices) in complete secrecy and wholly unregulated.

Sacramento News10 has obtained documents from agencies in San Jose, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and Alameda County — all of which point to stingray deployment. As has been the case in the past, the devices are acquired with DHS grants and put into use without oversight or guidelines to ensure privacy protections. The stingrays in use are mainly limited to collecting data, but as the ACLU points out, many manufacturers offer devices that also capture content.

Some of these agencies have had these devices for several years now. Documents obtained from the Oakland Police Dept. show the agency has had stingrays in use since at least 2007, citing 21 “stingray arrests” during that year. This is hardly a surprising development as the city has been pushing for a total surveillance network for years now, something that (until very recently) seemed to be more slowed by contractor ineptitude than growing public outrage.

The device manufacturer’s (Harris) troubling non-disclosure agreement (which has been used to keep evidence of stingray usage out of court cases as well as has been deployed as an excuse for not securing warrants) rears its misshapen head again, mentioned both in one obtained document as well as by a spokesperson reached for comment. One document states:

“The Harris (REDACTED) equipment is proprietary and used for surveillance missions,” the agreement reads. “Its capabilities can only be discussed with sworn law enforcement officers, the military or federal government. This equipment’s capabilities are not for public knowledge and are protected under non-disclosure agreements as well as Title 18 USC 2512.”

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Dept. had this to (not) say when asked about its stingray usage:

“While I am not familiar with what San Jose has said, my understanding is that the acquisition or use of this technology comes with a strict non-disclosure requirement,” said Undersheriff James Lewis in an emailed statement. “Therefore it would be inappropriate for us to comment about any agency that may be using the technology.”

Law enforcement agencies are conveniently choosing to believe a manufacturer’s non-disclosure agreement trumps public interest or even their own protection of citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.

The devices aren’t cheap, either. Taxpayers are shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for these cell tower spoofers, and the agencies acquiring them are doing very little to ensure the money is spent wisely. ACLU’s examination of the documents shows that many of the agencies purchased devices without soliciting bids.

It’s hard to know whether San José or any of the other agencies that have purchased stingray devices are getting good value for their money because the contract was “sole source,” in other words, not put out to competitive bidding. The justification for skirting ordinary bidding processes is that Harris Corporation is the only manufacturer of this kind of device. (We are aware of other surveillance vendors that manufacture these devices, though a separate Freedom of Information Request we submitted to the Federal Communications Commission suggests that, as of June 2013, the only company to have obtained an equipment authorization from the FCC for this kind of device is Harris.)

With Harris effectively locking the market down, buyers are pretty much ensured prices far higher than the market would bear if opened to competition. (Not that I’m advocating for a robust surveillance device marketplace, but if you’re going to spend taxpayers’ money on products to spy on them, the least you can do is try to get the best value for their money…) Using federal grants also allows these departments to further avoid public scrutiny of the purchase and use by circumventing the normal acquisition process.

Beyond the obvious Fourth Amendment concerns looms the very real threat of mission creep. These agencies cite combating terrorism when applying for federal funds, but put the devices to use for ordinary law enforcement purposes. The documents cite stingray-related arrests, but since so little is known about the purchase, much less the deployment, there’s really no way to tell how much data and content totally unrelated to criminal investigations has been collected (and held) by these agencies.

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Comments on “Law Enforcement Agencies All Over California Have Been Secretly Using Stingray Devices”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

We live in a totalitarian state.

If you disagree, they use their puppets to make you look bad in the public eye.
If you expose them, they heap legal charges and try to crush you.
They willfully violate rights they claim are sacred and what they are fighting to protect.
They are worse than the “enemy”.
They violate our rights with our money, perhaps in these huge wasteful budgets we could get a stipend for lube as they fsck us over time and time again.

Exactly what is it going to take to stop this?
No one seems to have the will to stand up for those they represent, instead believing they can spy and lie their way out of trouble… trouble caused by spying and lying.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I am more entertained that an NDA agreement with a corporation now magically trumps due process.

I’m waiting for the bang babies to show up, we are sliding from 1984/V for Vendetta into Shadowrun. Corporations will be granted rights and extraterritorial powers based on their size and the government will just sort of collapse to the background as background noise to the real power of the corps.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Interesting thought, but that won’t happen. The government is the central power, they would just go straight up your business now belongs to the governme…. we mean people since we got tired of you pushing us around with truckloads of cash. Now we will just decide how many truckloads we deserve and manage your corrupt arses on behalf of the American sheeple…. I mean people.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

The Government that has billions in fake paper money in the hands of corporations that could collapse them?
The Government that has handed the keys to the kingdom over to corporations, the NSA is 5 gov employees and 50,000 contractors who ACCIDENTALLY get trade secrets that keep their bosses rich.
The Government who for a small “contribution” will shovel laws to benefit corporations at the expense of citizens lives and rights?

The history of Shadowrun has an event where corporations became extraterritorial. People rioted during a food shortage and attacked a convoy. The corp murdered them. They were found not to be in violation of the law, because they had the right to defend themselves.
“Corporations are people my friend.”

We’re living through Animal Farm, 1984, Little Brother, and a host of other books… perhaps it is time we jump ahead a couple chapters and spoil the plans before it all goes to shit.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Dang it, I’ve been waiting for someone else to say this and they haven’t. Please can someone ELSE do a search on the history of the East India Company.


History has a discomfiting habit of repeating itself because we think the lessons we could have learned don’t apply these days. Also, we let people get away with re-framing the issues and deflect our attention.

Anonymous Coward says:

just another step on the ladder of a Police State, where everyone is classed as a terrorist or criminal and treated as such unless able to prove otherwise. the ‘Innocent unless proven guilty’ is a thing of the past and introduced by our friends in the entertainment industries whereby unless a person pays to go to court to prove he/she wasn’t the one using an internet connection on a certain day at a certain time, the ‘pay up or else accusation from the industries not only remains, it is enforced’

whoever would have thought that the most reasonable of laws would be reversed completely by an industry that makes movies or music? whoever would have thought that these items would be more important than anything else on the planet?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Another step… It makes me think, what step is needed next for us to become a Police state?

In this example the Police are straight up doing just about whatever they please at their masters behest. They now carry and use use military grade weapons, equipment, and vehicles.

They regularly terrorist the citizenry now in the name of safety and security. As things stand now, law enforcement can just drop kiddy porn on your machine and society will just let them take you away no questions asked.

We ARE in a police state… just a nice one.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“We ARE in a police state… just a nice one”

While we aren’t yet in a police state, we are a fascist state, and your comment here reminded me of a wonderful essay about the nature of fascism and how the US variety is likely to be a “nice” one — because all fascist state have to be “nice” for most people in order to survive. Check it out: Fascism in a Pinstripe Suit

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: I would think the FCC would prohibit this

The devices certainly adhere to FCC regulations. But there’s a related issue I wonder about:

The FCC made a ruling not long ago about active cell-phone boosters (which are pretty similar, radio-wise, to Stingray, but without all the spying parts) saying that they’re changing the rules so that now you have to get the cell carrier’s permission to use them. Prior to the ruling, such permission was unnecessary.

Does this apply to using Stringray, too? Are the cops getting the cell companies’ permission to deploy these things?

McEwen Law Firm (user link) says:

As a cell phone owner, I must admit that these actions scare me in a way that makes me rethink owning one. What makes this worse is that grant money is being used to fund the stingrays. What kind of data are they really collecting? Are they being forthright with all of the information they are revealing? It looks very bad that the manufacturer of the devices has kept information out of court cases, leading me to wonder what in the world they are hiding. Is there something going on that we don?t know about, and can we keep our privacy? How many more of these towers are up in the country?

Joe says:

Re: Re:

GSM hacking is old news to the ‘geekiratti’. Their non-disclosure paperwork is pointless so far as questions of capability are concerned. It’s “Pretty much anything we want” just like if you have Linux machine’s ‘root’ password. Imagine if you could view every packet on a network & had decryption of them all. Banking might as well be done on postcards if this was done to your home computer, for example. Forgeable cell phone packets is a nightmare for security model of trusting the provider.

The real purpose of those policies is for the courtrooms to make it harder to counter them as an attorney, I’d imagine.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: this is war my friends...

We are living in the days of what has been predicted for decades. Once thought of as conspiracy hogwash is coming to full fruition before our eyes. How much longer will the zombies stand idly by? Blindly following into the belly of the beast. The time for war is now. Now is the time to stand and fight for your human rights! The technology revolution has begun. Where will you stand? I pray for peaceful resolution. However, that is Not the same idiology our governments share. I will not back down. I will not surrender until justice rears is head with judicial karma. And those imposters running the governments are held to the highest court and surrender admitting their evil atrocities in humble cries for forgivness. Many will stand in face of the tirant monster. As the New world order attempts to devour the mass. Hope through revolution will hold steadyfast.

Keewee Bean says:

I am just rambling here but I look at this in a different light…, Law enforcement agencies seem to act like children. They always want to show off or demonstrate their newest and most technological equipment or tactics. Just look at the militarization of the police and how they are using military grade equipment like MRAPS and tactics to fight crime on a 21st century battlefield…., oops, I meant civilian population I bet these local police agencies where given “special funding” to purchase this equipment and when they found out if doesn’t work, they tried to hide this fact. Not that this is any news, but lots of government spending on “magical surveillance equipment” can be a case for waste and fraud. The only winners in this is the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) who are pushing this sham. Its another way the MIC to generate revenue while the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down…, oh wait, Iraq is having problems again…., get those checks ready for the MIC’s.

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