ACLU: Baltimore PD using “warrantless and deceptive” cellphone surveillance


WBAL TV reports:

The American Civil Liberties Union is taking the Baltimore City Police Department to task for its “warrantless and deceptive use of cellphone surveillance devices.”

Local law enforcement is using methods to pinpoint a suspect’s location straight out of a spy agency’s playbook. It’s a cutting edge crime-fighting tool whose trade name is Stingray, which is made by the Harris Corp.

The ACLU calls the practice the invasion of the data snatchers. The problem is, according to the ACLU, Stingray scoops up the personal information contained in the cellphones of everyone in their range.

The ACLU filed a friend of the court brief, alleging the Baltimore City police misled a judge so they could use Stingray. The complaint claims the device violated the Fourth Amendment right of a suspect and allowed police to obtain personal information from other people’s phones.

The device impersonates cellphone towers, prompting all phones within its range to connect to it, picking up everyone’s information, not just the suspect’s personal information. There’s concern it’s being used unlawfully and the data kept in a file.

The city spent a lot of money on it:

Baltimore City police declined to comment, but the city Board of Estimates records indicate city police spent more than $250,000 on the technology.

According to Board of Estimates records and ACLU legal briefs, on Feb. 4, 2009, the city award $132,000 to Harris Corp. for its cellphone-tracking system. On June 9, 2010, the Board of Estimates gave $30,000 to Harris Corp. for a cellphone-tracking system extended warranty. On Jan. 23, 2013, the city paid $99,786 to Harris Corp. for a hailstorm cellphone tracker upgrade.

But it wasn’t until a criminal case made it an evidentiary issue that the public learned how police used Stingray without a warrant. Police said they wanted what’s called a pen register order to see what calls were going in and out from a suspect’s phone.

An ACLU attorney noted the device collects identifier information on phones along with calls and text message information; and could even be used to intercept calls. The attorney said the police used the Stingray to geo-locate a phone in a house, but that’s not what they told a judge they were using it for. The ACLU attorney also called that “insane” and said officials “were willing to put secrecy above public safety.”

The US Supreme Court has ruled a warrant is required to use it and state law now requires the same.

In addition to Baltimore City, other police departments in the area are using it, with almost all of them (like the city) refusing to talk about it:

Anne Arundel County police said they use the technology in a responsible and lawful way to find missing persons and wanted felons. Montgomery County police would not confirm they have it but budget documents indicate they spent $180,000 to upgrade their Stingray system. Other local police departments did not respond to the 11 News I-Team’s inquiry.

Jeff Quinton

Jeff Quinton

Jeff Quinton is an award-winning blogger who has been aggregating and blogging since 1998. He has worked as a reporter, in government, and as a communications professional in Columbia, SC and Washington, DC.

Quinton is a native South Carolinian who has lived in Baltimore since 2006. He is a recent convert to the Catholic Church and is active in the Knights of Columbus. He has been involved in the pro-life movement nationally and locally since 2010.

Quinton is a veteran who served as an intelligence analyst in the Army National Guard. He is also an Eagle Scout.
Jeff Quinton