It’s no secret that state and local law enforcement agencies have grown more militarized in the past decade, with armored personnel carriers, drones and robots.
But one item in their arsenal has been kept largely out of public view, to the dismay of civil liberties advocates who say its use is virtually unregulated – and largely untracked.
The device is a suitcase-size surveillance tool commonly called a StingRay that mimics a cellphone tower, allowing authorities to track individual cellphones in real time. Users of the device, which include scores of law enforcement agencies across the country, sign a non-disclosure agreement when they purchase it, pledging not to divulge its use, even in court cases against defendants the device helped capture.
Those restrictions remain in place despite a decision last year by the police in Charlotte, North Carolina, to disclose to judges more details about the device’s use in criminal cases and laws in several states that require warrants whenever the device is employed.
A report this week by the House Reform and Government Oversight Committee raised new concerns about the devices’ popularity. “Cell-site simulator use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the use, extent and legality of government surveillance authority,” it said.
The FBI is one of the major users of the device. The House of Representatives report said that agency alone had more than 194 cell-site simulators in use across the country.
Yet even as the federal government has encouraged the use of the simulators, the FBI has demanded that Harris Corp., the defense contractor that manufactures the most commonly used of the devices, provide notification every time it sells a device to law enforcement agencies. In turn, the FBI requires those agencies to sign a non-disclosure agreement that blocks them from telling the public of the purchase or acknowledging the device’s use in court proceedings.
Until recently, the FBI avoided disclosing its own use of the surveillance apparatus and also “its role in assisting state and local law enforcement agencies in obtaining the devices,” the oversight committee report said.
Cell-site simulators were developed for battlefield use, allowing roving infantry teams or airborne units to track the cellphone signatures of enemy combatants and kill them.
Their civilian use has soared, however. In addition to the FBI’s 194 devices, the report found them sprinkled among federal agencies: the U.S. Marshals Service has 70, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has 59 and even the Internal Revenue Service maintains two of the electronic tools in its investigative arsenal.
The House report provided only limited details about the spread of the devices to state and local agencies. But the American Civil Liberties Union tallies 68 agencies in 23 states and the District of Columbia that have StingRay tracking devices. States with broad usage include North Carolina, Florida, Texas and California.
Even small city police departments can obtain StingRays. The police department in Sunrise, Florida, a municipality of 90,000 people northwest of Fort Lauderdale, has two, the House report said.
Much of the federal government won’t talk about use of the StingRays.
“The FBI does not comment on specific tools or techniques,” spokesman Raushaunah Muhammad said.
Harris Corp., headquartered in Melbourne, Florida, was equally reticent: “We are unable to comment for your story,” spokesman Jim Burke said.