Privacy SOS

Transparency around stingray use in Tacoma leads to accountability

This is what happens when public agencies are (forced to be) transparent with the public about their surveillance practices: Accountability!

Ars Technica:

Judges in Pierce County, Washington, have now begun requiring law enforcement agencies to ask for specific permission when using a cell site simulator, commonly known as a "stingray," according to a Saturday report by the Tacoma News Tribune.

Previously, as is the case nearly everywhere else in the country, law enforcement would go to a judge asking for a "pen register, trap and trace" order, which in the pre-cellphone era allowed law enforcement to obtain someone's calling metadata in near real-time. Now, that same data can be gathered directly by the cops themselves through the use of a stingray used against mobile phones. Stingrays, however, also can be used to intercept calls and text messages, and the stingray doesn't only work against one target phone but also against other phones that may happen to be nearby.

The new, more stringent standard is unusual among American courts.

The rules imposed by Washington judges are unusual, but they shouldn't be. Tacoma police had been using this technology since 2008 without informing judges. Police seemed to be perfectly happy keeping these secrets from courts, and initially fought public disclosure requests. The only reason we know about Tacoma PD stingray use is that journalists pushed for information about it. Their publication—compelled government transparency—is why there's a rule change that will benefit the privacy of ordinary people in Tacoma accused of no crime.

Transparency leads to accountability. That's why it's critical that we push back against ridiculous, CIA-trickle down claims that police departments can't tell us how they're spending our money spying on us. Secrecy's best friend is abuse. One of the most effective ways to curtail the latter is to push for sunlight on surveillance.

Now judges all over the country should follow suit and instruct police and prosecutors to tell them when they intend to use stingrays or other surveillance devices. Let the dominoes fall!

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.