Privacy SOS

Los Angeles PD got a cell phone sniffer for “Terrorism” but used it in drug cases

Photo credit: Ed Schipul

Back in 2006, the Los Angeles Police Department received a grant from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase a cell phone sniffer called a Stingray. The LAPD said in its grant application that it needed the highly invasive surveillance tool for "regional terrorism investigations." Sounds like serious stuff, right?

Seven years later, we learn that the LAPD has been using this military grade surveillance hardware to catch robbers, drug dealers and run of the mill murderers. This fact shouldn’t surprise us. 

Over the past ten years police nationwide have been granted billions in federal funds to purchase increasingly advanced surveillance gear and weaponry, all in the name of fighting terrorism. An entire industry of "homeland defense" has sprung up in the wake of these seemingly endless grant streams, birthing institutions such as the local "fusion center" and "real time crime center." Every urban cop worth his salt has to have not only a state of the art surveillance camera system blanketing his city but also a mess of flat screen televisions and a military style command center at his disposal, the better to take in all the mundane patterns of the millions of ordinary people caught on camera every day of their lives. 

There’s no doubt that our state and local police departments have gone off the deep end when it comes to advanced surveillance technologies, thanks to those federal grants. Then there are the powers. 

The most notorious of the post-9/11 "anti-terror" laws is the USA Patriot Act, which authorized such anti-democratic practices as the "National Security Letter" — an all powerful subpoena with a gag order — and the "sneak and peek." The latter is a special search warrant that enables federal agents to go into your house, search it and bug it, and sneak out unnoticed. That isn’t altogether so different from other search warrants, but the catch with sneak and peeks is that the government doesn’t ever have to tell you that it did any of that. You could grow old and die without knowing that you were once the subject of an FBI investigation so invasive that they drilled holes in your walls to install cameras and microphones in your bedroom while you were on vacation in the Bahamas.

Those are federal powers, but increasingly states are jumping on the Expanding Powers bandwagon and implementing NSL-like subpoena statutes. What that means in practice is that state prosecutors — like their federal counterparts — are now able to get all sorts of information about your life out of telecoms, web communication providers like Google and Facebook and even your financial institution with a simple subpoena. No judge ever sees it, and in most states there is zero external oversight over this broad prosecutorial power.

What does all that have to do with the LAPD and the Stingray device? Most of these changes in the power dynamic between the government and the governed — the tools and the powers — are excused in the name of almighty National Security, Protecting the Homeland from Terrorists. But because our local police departments don’t actually do very much anti-terrorism work on their own (as a Senate subcommittee for investigations report showed, their fusion centers produce "mostly crap"), when they trickle down to the state and local level these tools and powers are used to target ordinary criminals like drug dealers. 

The local police department in Keene, New Hampshire, acquired an armored personnel carrier — a Massachusetts-made Bearcat — through a DHS grant for anti-terrorism stuff. A city council member told the Boston Globe how easy it was: "Our application talked about the danger of domestic terrorism, but that’s just something you put in the grant application to get the money. What red-blooded American cop isn’t going to be excited about getting a toy like this? That’s what it comes down to." Does anyone honestly think that Keene, New Hampshire is about to get hit by terrorists? Of course not. But the police department chased that quarter of a million dollar government grant and got it, all because it mentioned terrorism. Does Keene have drug war problems? If it has living and breathing humans, yes. So most likely, the Bearcat will be brought out of its hiding place to confront a meth dealer whom police suspect has a rifle. You know, to serve a warrant or something.

In September 2009, then Senator Russ Feingold testified about how the government had used its sneak and peek powers, granted under the Patriot Act. He found that those sneak and peeks were overwhelmingly used in drug cases. Sixty five percent of the deployments were drug war related. Only three out of 763 were related to anti-terrorism. 

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Those were the sneak and peek figures under President Bush. Under President Obama the statistics are even worse. In 2010 there were 3970 such searches, up from 1899 in 2009. And alarmingly, over 76% of them were used in drug war cases, while under one percent were directed against suspects investigated for terrorism related crimes. In fact, more of those sneak and peeks were authorized in "immigration" cases than for counterterrorism purposes. 

A law that was rushed through congress supposedly to give federal prosecutors and agents the leeway they needed to counter a "new" and dangerous enemy is being overwhelmingly used to target ordinary criminals, in a war many Americans aren’t even sure we want to be fighting anymore. (It’s also a futile war: all signs suggest we have lost and will continue to lose the war on drugs.)

What’s the lesson here?

When it comes to both powers and technologies, we should be very careful about what we are freeing our state and local police up to do. When majorities of people all over the country are starting to realize the war on drugs is a bad idea, should we be giving our government the latest and greatest tools with which to wage it? 

The LAPD’s deployment of the Stingray should serve as a reminder to keep our heads in check when the state mentions "terrorism." Once police get new powers and technologies, they’ll use them to target the usual suspects — and they won’t easily give them up. All too often in the US, new police powers and tools means more effective targeting of poor people and people of color, the demographics that are more often locked up for drug crimes even amidst evidence that they are far from alone in selling or using. In the meantime, as in Los Angeles where possibly thousands of totally innocent people had their cell phone information sucked up during the course of investigations, we all take a hit to our personal privacy.

The federal government is about to wage an all out battle over spending and the deficit. While looking for places to trim back the budget, a great place to start would be these so-called "homeland security" grants that are turning our local police departments into para-military organizations. We need to end the war on drugs, not give our law officers the latest technologies to wage it. If the government is so worried about spending, they’d do well to cut back on that war instead of beefing up its enforcement.

Click here if you are interested in learning how you can get involved at the local level to push back against the militarization of your police department.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.