San Diego police sued over tracking cell phones with 'stingray'

San Diego police sued over tracking cell phones with 'stingray'
The San Diego Police Department is being sued by a civil rights organization over the possible use of dragnet-capable ‘Stingray’ cellphone surveillance technology that has given national police observers pause for its widespread tracking capabilities.

San Diego police have long chosen to withhold details about whether it uses an International Mobile Subscriber Identity catcher (IMSI), which emulates the functionality of a cell phone tower in order to interact with a nearby mobile phone. Commonly known as Stingrays, a popular brand name, they can be used to capture and intercept the contents of communications, including calls, text messages, or internet activity. Many IMSI catchers are used in dragnet fashion, scooping up information about every phone in range.

The First Amendment Coalition presented in the lawsuit a heavily-redacted invoice provided by the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) that confirmed $33,000 was spent to acquire or use IMSI-catching technology, yet SDPD will not provide further information to the group or news organizations, according to the Union-Tribune of San Diego.

READ MORE:California police spent $45mn on spy gear with little oversight

"Without having basic information about whether they even have the technology, let alone how they’re using it... how do we have that conversation about the merits of surveilling citizens," coalition attorney Kelly Aviles told the Union-Tribune.

The First Amendment Coalition says any details pursuant to the SDPD’s use of the surveillance technology - including department rules governing IMSI-catching police work, warrants sought that have come from its use, and training information provided SDPD agents - are required to be disclosed based on California law.

SDPD has shirked the coalition’s request for transparency, saying the requests “would reveal security or intelligence information” and was exempt from disclosure, according to the lawsuit.

READ MORE:Fake cell phone ‘towers’ may be spying on Americans’ calls, texts

The San Diego Attorney’s Office said in a statement that the US Department of Justice has maintained that use of ISMI-catching technology is allowed to stay secret.

"Information regarding the equipment must not be disclosed because to do so would potentially endanger the lives and physical safety of law enforcement officers and adversely impact criminal and national security investigations,” the city attorney’s office said.

“The city is obligated to follow that direction and will do so absent further direction from the Department of Justice or a court order.”

READ MORE:Tracking everywhere: Private companies offer worldwide spying tools

Investigations into Stingray/ISMI-catching technology have found myriad capabilities to surveil phone users, triggering debate over clandestine police tracking. In addition, many police departments using ISMI catchers have signed non-disclosure agreements with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, facilitated by the Federal Communications Commission and Stingray-manufacturer Harris Corporation.

Law enforcement agencies, though, have said it does not track specific contents of calls, and text messages aren’t intercepted and read.

READ MORE:Arizona judge: Police don’t have to disclose public records on ‘StingRay’ spy tech

These reassurances have not placated civil liberties advocates like Aviles.

“This isn’t just a technology that focuses on the subject of the investigation,” she told the Union-Tribune. “It sweeps up of information from all of our cellphones.”

She added that the coalition wants to know what happens to intercepted information and whether a warrant is ever obtained before the device is used.

“And what is being provided in that warrant and how accurate are they describing the technology’s use?” she said.

READ MORE:Chicago activists claim police used 'Stingray' surveillance during Garner protests

Aviles and the ACLU of San Diego said transparency from SDPD over IMSI technology would not harm police investigations.

“There’s nothing more important and potentially dangerous then the unbridled exercise of law enforcement power,” said David Loy, legal director for ACLU of San Diego and the Imperial Counties. “So we, the public, have the absolute right to know what police department is doing with our money and how it’s impacting our privacy.”

Last month, the ACLU report, titled 'Making Smart Decisions about Surveillance: A Guide for Communities,' revealed how California law enforcement took advantage of millions of dollars’ worth of federal surveillance gear to sidestep oversight by city councils and boards of supervisors. Police also avoided consideration of costs and benefits, leaving the public in the dark as to how law enforcement was using the equipment to track their lives.