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Cellphone towers such as this one in Lincoln, Mont., may be tapped by local police to scoop up its data. There are indications that some Iowa law enforcement agencies have obtained bulk cellphone data as part of their crime-fighting efforts the past two years. (Photo: Robin Loznak)

Police secretly track cellphones to solve routine crimes

WT24 Desk

BALTIMORE — The crime itself was ordinary: Someone smashed the back window of a parked car one evening and ran off with a cellphone. What was unusual was how the police hunted the thief, USA Today reports.

Detectives did it by secretly using one of the government’s most powerful phone surveillance tools — capable of intercepting data from hundreds of people’s cellphones at a time — to track the phone, and with it their suspect, to the doorway of a public housing complex. They used it to search for a car thief, too. And a woman who made a string of harassing phone calls.

In one case after another, USA TODAY found police in Baltimore and other cities used the phone tracker, commonly known as a stingray, to locate the perpetrators of routine street crimes and frequently concealed that fact from the suspects, their lawyers and even judges. In the process, they quietly transformed a form of surveillance billed as a tool to hunt terrorists and kidnappers into a staple of everyday policing.

The suitcase-size tracking systems, which can cost as much as $400,000, allow the police to pinpoint a phone’s location within a few yards by posing as a cell tower. In the process, they can intercept information from the phones of nearly everyone else who happens to be nearby, including innocent bystanders. They do not intercept the content of any communications.

Dozens of police departments from Miami to Los Angeles own similar devices. A USA TODAY Media Network investigation identified more than 35 of them in 2013 and 2014, and the American Civil Liberties Union has found 18 more. When and how the police have used those devices is mostly a mystery, in part because the FBI swore them to secrecy.

Police and court records in Baltimore offer a partial answer. USA TODAY obtained a police surveillance log and matched it with court files to paint the broadest picture yet of how those devices have been used. The records show that the city’s police used stingrays to catch everyone from killers to petty thieves, that the authorities regularly hid or obscured that surveillance once suspects got to court and that many of those they arrested were never prosecuted.

Defense attorneys assigned to many of those cases said they did not know  a stingray had been used until USA TODAY contacted them, even though state law requires that they be told about electronic surveillance.

“I am astounded at the extent to which police have been so aggressively using this technology, how long they’ve been using it and the extent to which they have gone to create ruses to shield that use,” Stephen Mercer, the chief of forensics for Maryland’s public defenders, said.

Prosecutors said they, too, are sometimes left in the dark. “When our prosecutors are made aware that a detective used a cell-site stimulator, it is disclosed; however we rely upon the Police Department to provide us with that information,” said Tammy Brown, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore’s State’s Attorney. “We are currently working with the Police Department to improve upon the process to better obtain this information in order to comply with the law.”

Baltimore is hardly alone. Police in Tallahassee used their stingray to track a woman wanted for check forging, according to records provided to the ACLU last year. Tacoma, Wash., police used theirs to try to find a stolen city laptop, according to records released to the website Muckrock. Other departments have acknowledged that they planned to use their stingrays for solving street crimes.

As that surveillance became more common — and more widely known — state and federal lawmakers moved to put new limits on the circumstances in which it can be used. Some states require the police to get a search warrant before they can use a stingray, and Congress is considering a similar rule for the federal government.

Federal officials have said stingrays allow them to track dangerous criminals. “It’s how we find killers,” FBI Director James Comey said last year. “It’s how we find kidnappers. It’s how we find drug dealers. It’s how we find missing children. It’s how we find pedophiles.”

In Baltimore, at least, it’s how the police tracked the man they suspected stole a phone from the back seat of a car parked outside the city’s central booking facility in 2009. Two days after the theft, an officer said in a court filing that detectives found Danell Freeman holding the phone in the doorway of an East Baltimore public housing complex. The court filing did not say how detectives knew to look for the phone there, but a police surveillance log indicates they used a stingray.

Police charged Freeman with misdemeanor theft. Prosecutors dropped the case a month later.

“The problem is you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have it be some super-secret national security terrorist finder and then use it to solve petty crimes,” Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Hanni Fakhoury said.

FBI spokesman Chris Allen said the bureau does not have the authority to tell police departments how they should use stingrays. It has asked them to keep that use confidential, requiring them to sign non-disclosure agreements that prohibit officers from revealing how the phone-tracking technology works. Baltimore police officials signed one in 2011.

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