Washington Law Enforcement Hides Stingray Purchase And Use From Everyone, But It's OK Because They're Fighting Crime

from the outraged-at-the-lack-of-outrage dept

More news of secret surveillance has been uncovered, thanks to FOIA requests. Police in Tacoma, Washington have a Stingray device and have been using it, unbeknownst to pretty much everyone in the area. And it’s not just a recent development. According to information obtained by The News Tribune, this dates back more than a half-decade.

Deputy City Attorney Michael Smith redacted much of the identifying information on a May 2013 invoice for the equipment, saying disclosure “would allow the identification of confidential pieces of technology.”

However, unredacted portions of those public records as well as other documents reviewed by The News Tribune indicate the Police Department has had the ability to wirelessly search neighborhoods since as early as 2008.

So, why is this information just coming out now? For one, law enforcement hasn’t been particularly forthcoming. Harris has its own restrictive non-disclosure agreements to keep mouths shut, but the factor specifically cited in this article is the federal government.

Police Chief Don Ramsdell, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview request to talk about the police department’s apparent purchase of a Stingray device and associated technology. The department cited a nondisclosure agreement it has with the FBI.

So, the FBI — a federal agency — helped ensure that no one involved with the oversight of law enforcement and its new toys had any idea what was going on.

The people who could have provided some sort of accountability completely failed. Read this sentence and remember that these are people elected to look out for the public’s interests.

News that the city was using the surveillance equipment surprised City Council members, who approved an update for a device last year

Terrible, although some of this can be blamed on the lack of openness within law enforcement. Now, read the second half of that sentence and marvel at the undermining of the criminal justice system.

…and prosecutors, defense attorneys and even judges, who in court deal with evidence gathered using the surveillance equipment.

No one knew. No one. Prosecutors didn’t know how the evidence they were using was being obtained and defense attorneys couldn’t effectively challenge evidence because its origin was obscured. And if judges don’t know, then it means local law enforcement lied about how they were obtaining data, either through parallel construction or simply assuming the gathering of “business records” requires no warrant.

Now that they’re informed, the statements they’re making are disturbing in their abject cluelessness.

“If they use it wisely and within limits, that’s one thing,” said Ronald Culpepper, the presiding judge of Pierce County Superior Court, when informed of the device Tuesday. “I would certainly personally have some concerns about just sweeping up information from non-involved and innocent parties — and to do it with a whole neighborhood? That’s concerning.”

“Concerning?” “Sweeping up information” is the only way these devices work. They can’t target anything because they’re not designed to. This isn’t like bugging a phone. This is grabbing every record generated and searching it later for what’s actually of interest. And Culpepper’s “personal concerns” are also those of the public, so he’d better keep that in mind when dealing with this device in the future, rather than placing the “concerns” of law enforcement ahead of his and everyone else’s.

Worse yet are the comments of city representatives, who think it’s OK for the police to have a device that indiscriminately grabs connection information (and a device that they lied about) because they’re the police.

City Manager T.C. Broadnax:

“I’m not in law enforcement, but it’s my impression that it assists them in doing their job more effectively, and that’s to protect the public.”

Mayor Marilyn Strickland:

“If our law enforcement need access to information to prevent crime or keep us safe, that’s a legitimate use of the technology,” she said. “We are more focused on preventing crime and keeping our community safe than getting in people’s business.”

[That “we” is supposed to be you and the public, not you and the police force.]

Councilman David Boe:

“I’ve got to find out what I voted on before I comment.”

[Why bother now?]

Another city council member conceded he was never given details on the purchase he was approving, but that it “doesn’t surprise him” that law enforcement has this type of device. The cover-up was OK because it keeps investigations from being compromised. Another council member said she would need to “check with the city manager” before commenting, so we can probably just copy and paste Broadnax’s “police fight crime” head nod from above.

But some of these representatives must have known. The public records trail (obtained by MuckRock) shows a memo from 2007 seeking to bypass the competitive bidding process. After the first Stingray was obtained in 2008, the city named Detective Jeffrey Shipp “Employee of the Month,” citing this:

“for his work in procuring a $450,000 training and equipment grant for a cellular phone tracking system — one of only five awarded across the country. Great job!”

This money was mostly a DHS grant, and law enforcement cited the technology’s usefulness to its “Explosive Ordinance Detail” as the primary reason for the acquisition. No document details how many explosive devices were detected or disarmed using the cell phone tracker. Unsurprising, considering it’s being used to track drug dealers and other “normal” criminal activity.

What is also uncovered in the documents is some indication of how the Stingray’s use is being concealed. Multiple warrants have been issued for cellphone records, none of which apparently refer to them being collected by a cell tower spoofer. It also looks as if pen register/trap and trace orders are being used as permission slips for dragnet collections. In both cases, law enforcement is using targeted paperwork for untargeted collections. But prosecutor Mark Lindquist says that even though he knew nothing about the device or its usage, everyone’s still playing by the rules.

Prosecutors have to be able to defend evidence in court, he said. As far as he knows, local law enforcement is “playing by the rules.”

“None of this evidence has been successfully challenged by the defense, and from that, I can infer that law enforcement is doing it right,” he said. “Both prosecutors and defense attorneys will review warrants and make sure that they are valid.”

That’s how you can quantify the “rightness” of evidence obtained through parallel construction? No evidence has been “successfully challenged” by the defense? That’s so stupid it must be a misquote. How can you successfully challenge evidence if the paper telling you how it was obtained obscures the true source? In Lindquist’s eyes, dealing evidence from the bottom of the deck is “playing by the rules.”

And the police haven’t been forthcoming about the disposal of incidental data. If the device has been used secretly for a half-dozen years, and everyone in an oversight position is claiming to have just heard about it now, there’s very likely no minimization guidelines or policies. There are hints that irrelevant data is deleted, but there’s nothing in here that says how long its retained before this happens… if it happens.

So, law enforcement buys cell tower spoofers and the FBI encourages them to hide the details. It attempts to obscure it behind some sort of counterterrorism facade (for thwarting IEDs, remember?), gaining it kudos from the city for all the money it managed to talk the DHS out of. It then hides the use from the entirety of the criminal justice system and makes its oversight bodies look like complete fools. And we’re supposed to trust them not to abuse the incidental data they collect?

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Comments on “Washington Law Enforcement Hides Stingray Purchase And Use From Everyone, But It's OK Because They're Fighting Crime”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What is it gonna take...

Throwing out all suspect rulings? It works for Kids for Cash, DNA Lab Fraud, and other circumstances. If they can’t prove the legitimacy of their sources weren’t from a Stingray and parallel reconstructed they’re screwed. Prosecutors panic as wins fly off of their records and prisons empty into the streets because of their malfeasance.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Napoleonic Code

What has been shredded in the United States is not only the notion of equality under law (People with Fancy Lawyers and bribed judges > Law Enforcement Officers > Civilians) but also the Code Napoléon or Napoleonic Code, crafted by, yes, that conquerer, emperor and ice-cream namer, in 1804, which abolished the differences in civil or penal law as it pertained to social classes, noting that even the emperor was confined to the letter of the law, and a grievance between the emperor and commoner was to be regarded without consideration of their statures.

It’s considered a pretty major historical step forward in social justice, like the social contract and the magna carta.

And our government disregards it because it can. Because the US has returned to the age of Might = Right.

Chris Rhodes (profile) says:

Ahh, Yes

“I’m not in law enforcement, but it’s my impression that it assists them in doing their job more effectively, and that’s to protect the public.”

He must be referring to the fourth amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, unless doing do would assist police officers in doing police officery things.”

I think that’s in the latest version of the common core curriculum.

Anonymous Coward says:

I get that politicians can’t be crazy angry in public, but I am really missing a certain spark from them. They don’t have to curse or threaten when these things are discovered, but where is the outrage? Where is any hint of emotion?
It is always the monotone voice telling us that “oh I might be concerned… maybe… I will wait and see”.
In cases like these, it should be: “No matter what, there will be consequences! This is not how a free country’s police force behaves and it will be investigated for misuse and if needed, strict rules for its use will be set in place.”
This is even very mild, but a very easy opinion to have if you look at our most basic laws and the we want our society to be. But every single time they have no objection whatsoever… what the heck can we use these people for then?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: outrage

…but where is the outrage? Where is any hint of emotion?

Because it is happening to “those people”, oh and they really really don’t care. It is normal. They knew it was happening, they expect more of it to happen. Just now with the internet we are more aware of it happening, and we don’t like it.

vastrightwing (profile) says:


Law enforcement is not about protecting citizens. Andy Taylor was the last law enforcement officer who did that. Today’s law enforcement is all about procuring as much hardware as possible. The agency with the most toys wins. Citizens get in their way and need to be dealt with in a harsh way. We, in essence are the enemy. Consider that enforcement units kill many more citizens than terrorists and natural disasters. It’s no accident. We annoy law enforcement with our petty claim to “rights”. They often correctly point out to us that we have no rights. They are correct. We keep pretending we do and time and time again, they show us how wrong we are. When will we learn?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Legal obligation

Maybe it is time for neighborhoods to enact competing services that are, at least by the power of their bylaws, under obligation to act.

Obligation by policy or oath is at least better than no obligation at all.

And in many districts (such as Ferguson) all the police do is shake folks down for fines, not bothering even to investigate domestic disturbances or even murders.

A volunteer neighborhood service would be better than that by far, even if they get the wrong guy sometimes and even if the only thing they know how to do is beat someone to death.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Legal obligation

And in many districts (such as Ferguson) all the police do is shake folks down for fines, not bothering even to investigate domestic disturbances or even murders.

I call bullshit.

Please cite sources, real ones with stats and content, not “eye witness” BS that never amounts to much.

You seem to be perpetuating the real problem, a “snitches get stitches” sub-plot of how the police are always “puttin’ the brothas down”.

Uriel-238 on a mobile device says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Questioning sources

Fine. When I get home, I’ll link you to the whitepaper detailing the excessive arrest rate in Ferguson and the obstructions inlace to prevent people from addressing them in court. If you’re interested and would spare me the trouble, you can probably find it by Googling three arrests per household.

On the other hand it sounds like you are set in your opinion and wouldn’t be swayed by a faceful of evidence. Should I bother?

As much as I loathe anti-snitching campaigns that feed on the motion that relying on responders is antisocial or derisible, we’re talking about situations in which the responsive authorities themselves are bad players.

Uriel-238 on a mobile device says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Historical examples

Heh, my idea came from the Sicilian Mafia getting started harboring fugitives of the Holy Inquisition.

It never ends well, but so far police agencies in general seem to run afoul.

Based on the Stanford Prison Experiment, they may always until we develop a stable and impartial copbot.

Tom Mink (profile) says:

How about trademark infringement?

In order for these Stingray devices to work, they have to misrepresent the service that you’re connected to. Right at the top of my cell phone screen it states what network I’m connected to.

Isn’t it a bit weird that companies like T-Mobile and AT&T that are notoriously touchy and overreaching about their trademarks would let something like that go? Sure, bend over backward for law enforcement when they can do it secretly, but bork up their branding?

Of course, there’s the possibility that the Stingray might improve cell service by boosting the local signal. It’s really just a vastly unconstitutional, privacy invading customer service enhancement.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: How about trademark infringement?

“Isn’t it a bit weird that companies like T-Mobile and AT&T that are notoriously touchy and overreaching about their trademarks would let something like that go”

Not at all.

The telecom companies are incredibly dependent on staying in the good graces of the government. They have always been, and will probably always be, willing to do pretty much anything government agencies want because it would make doing business much harder if they didn’t.

This goes all the way back to when AT&T’s primary business was the telegraph.

Anonymous Coward says:

Good and Evil

Most people think the world is Good Guys and Bad Guys. Police go after Bad Guys, they never hurt Good Guys, so why do we have to question how the Police find and punish the Bad Guys?

Why should it matter, they’re Bad Guys! Anything we do to them is their due Punishment From God. Why are you trying to stop God’s Justice? Maybe you’re really a Bad Guy in disguise?

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