Major U.S. cities are spending millions of dollars on tools that track and extract data from people’s cellphones — but almost nothing on rules to guide their use.
A little after midnight on November 28, 2014, hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters filled the streets of downtown Chicago. The demonstration was one of many that erupted in cities nationwide soon after a Missouri grand jury failed to indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer for the shooting death of Michael Brown that August. As the protesters marched, a police vehicle crept behind them. The black SUV emblazoned with “City of Chicago Emergency Management” appeared to have two 360-degree cameras sprouting from its roof and a command center in the back.
Whenever the vehicle drove by, protesters reported that their phones stopped working.
A week later, audio of a police radio dispatch from the protest was released online. In the recording, an officer alerts a department intelligence analyst about of one of the protest organizers. “One of the girls here… she’s been on her phone a lot,” the officer says. “You guys picking up any information? Where they’re going, possibly?”The analyst responds, “Yeah, we’re keeping an eye on it. We’ll let you know if we hear anything.”The leaked conversation and the cellphone disruptions led many activists to conclude that the police were eavesdropping on them. This story circulated widely in protest circles, but the Chicago Police Department never confirmed any such surveillance operations that night. Legally, listening in on private communications between citizens talking over mobile phones would require a Title III search warrant. But one thing is indisputable: The technology to snoop on nearby phones exists—and the Chicago Police Department has had it for over ten years.
And such spy gear is not limited to Chicago. Hundreds of documents obtained by CityLab from the country’s top fifty largest police departments over the last ten months reveal that similar cellphone surveillance devices have been quietly acquired by local authorities nationwide.
The majority of these departments have at least one of two main types of digital-age spy tools: cellphone interception devices, used to covertly track or grab data from nearby mobile devices, and cellphone extraction devices, used to crack open locked phones that are in police possession and scoop out all sorts of private communications and content.
Access to such devices was once largely limited to intelligence agencies like the NSA and the FBI; their acquisition by local police departments is a relatively recent, less-discussed part of a wider police militarization trend. With only a few clicks, police can now map out individuals’ social networks, communication timelines, and associates’ locations, based on the data captured by these surveillance tools.
As a tool for crime fighting, such intelligence gathering can be powerful indeed: An interception tool could, for example, help police track down a kidnapper; an extraction device could then quickly identify their network of contacts. But the prospect of handing this military-grade spy gear to local law enforcement has inspired concern, in part because of the lack of uniform regulatory safeguards to protect citizens’ privacy.
“With 18,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, you know there are going to be many that are just going to jump on the technology bandwagon without regard for civil liberties,” says Norm Stamper, former Chief of the Seattle Police Department and now a police reform advocate.