Baltimore Cops Asked Creators Of 'The Wire' To Keep Cellphone Surveillance Vulnerabilities A Secret

from the works-of-fiction-with-too-much-truth? dept

Over the past decade, criminals have apparently gained an insurmountable technology lead over law enforcement. I’m not sure how this is possible, especially considering many criminals don’t have access to the same technology cops do, much less access to generous DHS funding, and yet, here we are witnessing police officers (following orders from the FBI) tossing cases and lying to judges in order to “protect” secret tools that aren’t all that much of a secret.

We recently covered a Baltimore detective’s courtroom admission that a) the Baltimore PD had deployed its Stingray equipment 4,300 times over the past seven years and b) that it had hidden this information from courts and defendants. The argument for this secrecy was that doing otherwise allows criminals to devise ways to beat the system.

No one’s looking to expose ongoing investigations, but as far as some law enforcement agencies are concerned, everyone is under continuous investigation by default. And since that’s the case, anything that might be construed as giving criminals a head start is subject to a thoroughly ridiculous code of silence that excludes the majority of the justice system.

This cop-specific technopanic is so all-encompassing that it has bled over into the unreality of creative efforts — like TV shows. (via The Verge)

David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, said in an email that “the transition from landlines to cellular technology left police investigations vulnerable well over a decade ago.”

He noted that there was new technology at the time — such as Nextel phones that mimicked walkie-talkies — that “was actually impervious to any interception by law enforcement during a critical window of time.”

“At points, we were asked by law enforcement not to reveal certain vulnerabilities in our plotlines,” Simon said. That included communications using Nextel devices.

The Wire also featured detectives using a cell signal-capturing device called a “Triggerfish.” Any relation to today’s Stingrays is likely not coincidental, no matter what the post-credits disclaimer might have stated. The Stingray isn’t a secret, but it has been awarded an unprecedented amount of secrecy. Cops lie to judges, defendants and even prosecutors to keep the Stingray out of the public eye. And yet, it seems clear that The Wire’s creators knew something about the technology over a decade ago.

But the inherent ridiculousness of asking a fictional television show to withhold dramatic elements just because they may have hewed too closely to reality can’t be ignored. Criminals will find vulnerabilities in the system and law enforcement will work hard to close these gaps. But criminals aren’t so far ahead as to be unstoppable.

This attempt to censor The Wire isn’t much different than the law enforcement secrecy efforts we see being deployed in courts. The motivation behind these efforts is highly suspect. It doesn’t seem so much to be aimed at preventing criminals from exploiting vulnerabilities as it is at keeping law enforcement officers from working any harder than they feel they should have to. It’s not about keeping bad guys from outmaneuvering cops. It has more to do with preventing public disclosure from resulting in unwanted changes — like additional scrutiny from magistrate judges or the challenging of submitted evidence. It’s about preserving the most efficient law enforcement methods — generally anything that doesn’t require permission from an outside entity or generate a paper trail.

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Comments on “Baltimore Cops Asked Creators Of 'The Wire' To Keep Cellphone Surveillance Vulnerabilities A Secret”

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17 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Mobile phones, and landlines phones for that matter, are only of use to catch criminals because they do not take simple precautions against being overheard, and they pass critical information over the phone. But then many criminals have faith in magic, that is a belief that they will not be caught, to keep them out of the hands of the police.

Anonymous Coward says:

No telling. One of these days criminals might figure out that any electronic communications could be subject to interception. They could decide to do face to face meetings with out cell phones, regular phones, tvs, or anything else in the room. I wonder what sort of electronic gadgetry they have for that one? Especially if it is done out in the woods far away from normal areas.

The military figured out long ago the most secure communications was the messenger. Sealed scrolls handed to a runner. Runner changing out every so often. Rome had this system for their secure communications along with a simple letter slide to change the text so that even if it was intercepted it could not right away be read. Another one was the tarot deck, certain cards put in a package as the message. A priest at the other end told them what it meant.

I don’t think all their internet spying would help in this case. Multimillion dollar outfit misses the whole ball game.

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