Privacy SOS

The absurdity of police secrecy on cell phone tracking equipment

Anyone who watches cop shows on television knows that police can track cell phones. Despite this widespread knowledge, the police and FBI go to extreme lengths to keep secret the details about how they obtain and use high tech cell phone snooping equipment, most of it manufactured by the Harris Corporation.

Civil libertarians and reporters have been trying to unearth details about these spy programs nationwide, but more often than not we hit some version of a confounding brick wall: carefully worded denials, outright refusals to provide documents, and even federal interference to physically remove documents to get them out of reach of the ACLU. Journalists Darwin Bond Graham and Ali Winston captured the absurdity of the situation perfectly in a new report on stingrays in Oakland:

A March 15, 2015 email from Craig Chew, assistant chief of the Alameda County DA's inspectors division, to colleagues at the Alameda County Sheriff's Office indicates that the DA's office has already received approval to spend Homeland Security grant funds on the Hailstorm cellphone tracker, and is waiting for federal approval of the non-disclosure agreement before finalizing the purchase. Chew's email also indicates that the DA's office has already been using Harris Corporation equipment.

"Just FYI, we are waiting [for] the NDA [non-disclosure agreement] to be approved by the FBI which should be any time at this point," wrote Chew. "We need this to be able to move forward. We have already shipped the old equipment back to Harris Corporation and they are just waiting for the NDA to be approved. They said as soon as they get that, things should move pretty quickly."

It's unclear which "old equipment" Chew was referring to, because the Alameda County District Attorney's Office has denied possessing a cell-site simulator. After being shown Chew's email, Alameda County District Attorney Spokesperson Teresa Drenick wrote in an email to us: "The inspectors division has not shipped any Harris equipment back, because the District Attorney's Office, including the inspector's division, does not now and has never owned Harris equipment."

The DA's office gave journalists an email in which a county prosecutor acknowledges that his office has "already shipped the old equipment back to Harris," but then when asked about it pretends it never happened.

No one who has tried to pry information about stingrays out of the hands of police or FBI officials in the United States will be shocked by this ridiculous denial. It's Alice in Wonderland style absurdity, and in the realm of police secrecy on stingrays, absolutely par for the course.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.