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?