Milwaukee PD Hid Stingray Usage From Judges, Defendants And Now Congress Members Want Answers From The FBI
from the the-huge-secret-that-isn't dept
More evidence of Stingray obfuscation has been uncovered in Milwaukee. What appeared at first to be a bog standard court order for tracking of a suspect using a cell phone provider’s own “network equipment” actually appears to be something else. The ACLU was already involved in this case, arguing that such tracking by cell phone providers only be available with a warrant. But as it dug into the specifics, it became obvious the tracking had not been performed by the cell provider.
As we read through documentation from the case, however, we began to suspect that something else was going on. It appears that police secretly used a cell site simulator, also known as a Stingray, to track the phone, but successfully concealed that fact from the defense and the court.
Our suspicion was first raised because police initially did not disclose to the defendant that they had located him by tracking his phone, only revealing it at an evidentiary hearing. In reports prepared after the defendant’s arrest, police officers used oddly vague language to explain how they located him: one officer merely wrote that law enforcement had “obtained information” about the defendant’s location; another said that police “obtained information from an unknown source” about where he was. This sounded to us a lot like the kind of intentionally ambiguous language used by police across the country to hide their Stingray use.
Like every other law enforcement agency with a Stingray device in its possession, the Milwaukee PD had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI. This “allowed” it to withhold the information from courts and defendants. But cracks in the NDA appeared and a prolific FOIA filer was able to pry loose documents detailing MPD’s use of cell tower spoofers.
Last fall, privacy activist Mike Katz-Lacabe obtained a list of 579 investigations in which the Milwaukee Police Department used Stingrays. (Here are Mike’s public records request and MPD’s response letter). That previously unpublicized list includes an entry for a case that matches the date and description of this one: an October 28, 2013, apprehension of a “fugitive” “related to [an] FBI roundup.”
The ACLU is now arguing for suppression of the evidence obtained with the Stingray. That isn’t local law enforcement’s only problem, however. The ACLU’s exposure of this secret Stingray use (along with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s coverage) has attracted the attention of people in a better position to demand answers from the FBI: Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner and Sheila Jackson.
In a letter sent to James Comey (who kind of has a lot on his plate already, tbh), the Congress members demand to know why the FBI is actively hiding information about these tracking devices from the public.
The FBI’s stated reason for secrecy was that disclosing the existence of the capabilities may allow “the subject of investigation wherein this equipment/technology is used to employ countermeasures to avoid detection by law enforcement.” But certainly not lost on the FBI was the fact that secrecy shields the technology from debate and inevitable controversy. Courts could not review its constitutionality. The public could not debate the merits and costs of the technology and what limitations might be appropriate. While this type of secrecy may be appropriate in the national security context, it is entirely inappropriate in the context of law enforcement where citizens have the constitutional right to challenge the government’s evidence against them
We are not prejudging the outcome of the debate over the use of Stingray technology, but we categorically denounce the use of nondisclosure agreements that limit the ability of the public and of courts to debate the merits of the technology and to implement limits they may deem appropriate.
The letter acknowledges that the FBI has recently backed away from supporting its own NDAs. The FBI’s last statement on the matter basically said the NDAs should not be read as saying exactly what they say: that information about Stingray usage should be hidden from everyone, if possible. It also expressed mild disbelief that the agreements were being taken so literally. The disingenuous and self-serving nature of this walkback is highlighted in the letter.
This, however, is at odds with the explicit language of the NDA which precludes disclosure to the public in any manner “including but not limited to: in press releases, in court documents, during judicial hearings, or during other public forums or proceedings.” The agreement, in fact, goes much further and states that the Milwaukee Police Department should seek FBI permission before responding to court ordered disclosures and should be prepared to dismiss cases at the FBI’s request if necessary to protect against disclosure.
The FBI has until March 25th to answer the following questions:
• Does the FBI consider state and local law enforcement to be bound by the NDAs related to the use of cell-site simulators?
• Has the FBI ever requested that a law enforcement agency dismiss a case to maintain the secrecy of law enforcement technology?
• How many NDAs has the FBI signed with state and local law enforcement agencies regarding cell-site simulators?
• Are there other technologies for which the FBI demands state and local law enforcement sign an NDA?
• Does the FBI continue to believe that NDAs are appropriate?
• Would the FBI ever condone perjury to Congress or judges to protect the existence of technology?
The answers should be illuminating — if the public is actually allowed to see the responses. The FBI may still try to claim this super-secret technology that everyone knows about can’t be discussed in an open forum. And I’m certain the agency will claim it would not condone perjury even though its NDAs strongly hint this would be preferable to exposing “sensitive” law enforcement methods.