Privacy SOS

Report: Tacoma police department uses Stingray cell phone sniffers, contracts with Verint

Should police departments act independently of the city councils and town governments that authorize their expenditures? Should police and prosecutors be required to tell judges exactly how they plan on invading people's privacy when they apply for surveillance warrants? A new report in the Bellingham Herald provides some ugly answers, and raises disturbing questions about the trickle down of the national security state to the local level.

In Tacoma, like in many other cities throughout the United States, police officials have been secretly deploying a powerful surveillance device for years without the knowledge or consent of city officials or even the judges who sign warrants enabling its use.

The device, called an IMSI catcher or a Stingray, tricks cell phones into sending information to the operator instead of to the cell phone company, enabling cops or other users to precisely locate cell phone users and even intercept communications.

Tacoma officials told reporter Kate Martin that they get warrants to use the powerful spy tech. But the top judge in the county says he didn’t know the cops were using Stingrays, meaning even judicial oversight is sorely lacking. If judges don’t know the surveillance they are authorizing involves the use of these devices, they won’t impose data minimization requirements as a condition of approving the warrant. That means the police are likely holding onto the cell phone information of potentially thousands of people suspected of no crime. Who knows what they're doing with all that data.

This kind of brazen power grab on the part of police is exactly what can happen when departments get federal drug and terror grants for the purchase of fancy surveillance gear. The lack of built-in oversight mechanisms pertaining to federal surveillance grants prompted the Seattle city council to pass an ordinance requiring explicit democratic approval of all new surveillance equipment. That's critical, because when the money seems “free”, local officials often don’t worry as much about digging into the details of how it will be spent. That is starting to change, as journalists and groups like the ACLU push for transparency on issues like covert cell phone tracking.

Transparency is vital not only so that the public, democratically elected officials, and judges are aware of what the police are doing with our money and in our names. It’s also imperative because once someone starts digging, troubling questions about the balance of power between the public and the cops often emerge. One of the troubling questions raised by the Bellingham Herald report requires some context from a recent Washington Post piece.

Secretive spy company started by former Israeli intelligence contracts with Tacoma police. Why?

Writing about the Tacoma police’s use of the Stingray tool, Kate Martin notes that "[i]n February, the Tacoma police bought software from another data-analysis company, Verint of Melville, New York, for $51,727, purchasing records show."

Verint was in the news recently because the company provides governments with a tool that, when used in conjunction with Stingray devices, allows law enforcement and spy agencies to completely avoid any legal process before tracking cell phones worldwide. Here’s how the Washington Post describes Verint’s SkyLock system:

Users of such technology type a phone number into a computer portal, which then collects information from the location databases maintained by cellular carriers, company documents show. In this way, the surveillance system learns which cell tower a target is currently using, revealing his or her location to within a few blocks in an urban area or a few miles in a rural one.

SkyLock is designed to be used alongside Stingrays. If I wanted to find out exactly where you are at any given moment, and I have access to both SkyLock and a Stingray device, I can type your phone number into the Verint database, find out what cell phone tower your phone is connected to, and then go to that neighborhood with my Stingray. Once I’m within blocks of you, the Stingray or another IMSI catcher device will alert me as I get closer to your real-time physical location—or at least that of your phone.

Could Tacoma police be paying Verint for the use of its SkyLock? That would be profoundly disturbing, because it would mean that local police would essentially have the same ability to track cell phones as the NSA.

One of the most disturbing things about the rapid expansion of the surveillance state is the trickle down from state security agencies to local police. Are local cops in Tacoma using SkyLock? Someone should find out.

When police are allowed to shield their surveillance activities from public scrutiny, we have no way of ensuring our rights aren’t being violated on a massive scale. But transparency works like dominoes. Sometimes all we need is an initial push, and then the walls come crumbling down.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.