Friday, March 14, 2014

Is Tempe PD planning to use cell phone data to identify participants at an anti-racist rally?

According to local media, the Tempe Police Department are preparing for a potential clash between a group of white supremacists who have announced a "White Man March" on Mill Avenue on Saturday, and a counter-demonstration organized by local anarchists and anti-racists, including residents of the surrounding neighborhood.

The TPD has a less than stellar history when it comes to dealing with protests. With that in mind, we want to put a spotlight on a secretive tool in the arsenal of the Tempe cops, one that can easily be used for spying on demonstrators in real time by using something almost everyone carries with them these days: a cell phone. The question is, will the TPD use it -- and what will be the implications for civil liberties if they do?

The Tempe Police Department's history of political repression through intimidation, electronic tracking, and surveilling of activists, radicals, anarchists, and participants in Occupy Phoenix, has been documented here at Down & Drought (and also quite extensively by journalist Beau Hodai, and by the anarchists themselves (1,2)), and includes using anti-terror cops to spy on gardeners and deploying mobile surveillance to gawk at tailgaters.

Knowing this historical context, and considering statements from TPD about their preparation for Saturday's protests,  we decided to do a little to research on the use of technology for the purpose of remote electronic surveillance. This led us to the Stingray, a device being discreetly used by law enforcement agencies across the United States to covertly collect data.

The Stingray is known as an “IMSI catcher”, meaning that the device records the International Mobile Subscriber Identity of a particular wireless device, such as a cell phone.  According to documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal,  the "Stingray works by mimicking a cellphone tower, getting a phone to connect to it and measuring signals from the phone. It lets the stingray operator 'ping,' or send a signal to, a phone and locate it as long as it is powered on."

The Stingray has the ability to connect to all cell phones within a mile of the device, without police having to contact a wireless service provider, by collecting data on the identification and location of all phone communications within range, and then forwarding the signal on to the nearest cell phone tower.  Among the data collected by the Stingray include all outgoing numbers dialed for phone calls and text messages, and the identification for a phone which can be used to obtain call and text history.  As the Stingray is usually mounted in a police vehicle, it can stay mobile and, due to the lack of familiarity the public has with the device, would be difficult to identify.

A handful of valley police departments admitted that they use the device in an Arizona Republic article, among them Phoenix, Mesa, and Gilbert departments. These devices are generally purchased with grant funds made available by the Department of Homeland Security.  According to the Republic, a number of valley police departments refused to acknowledge the use of the Stingray device, including the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which denied any knowledge of the Stingray device. 

In a similar instance, journalists in Sacramento researching the use of the Stingray in the region were told by the the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office that the department had no knowledge of owning or using the Stingray.  When confronted with documents from other departments, including a purchase order from Sacramento County, which confirmed that the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office did own a Stingray and related technology, the department never fessed up to owning a Stingray, instead telling the journalists that their "legal counsel is coordinating a response" to the inquiry.

The Stingray is a product of the Harris Corporation, a company which specializes in high tech surveillance technology, and made the Stingray a sought after device for law enforcement after years of developing the technology for the US military. Harris Corporation refuses to answer reporters' questions about the Stingray and related products, telling them to ask the police agencies about the device, which would be great if Harris Corporation wasn't also requiring departments to sign non-disclosure agreements upon purchase. This is the case with one of the notable local departments absent from the Republic's article, the Tempe Police Department, who paid Harris Corporation $60,321.75 for a Stingray package in October 2012.

The contract, which the Public Intelligence project downloaded and hosts on their site, was removed from the City of Tempe's website in the weeks after the purchase.  The removal of the contract, between the Harris Corporation and the City of Tempe, was likely due to the non-disclosure agreement that Tempe probably violated by posting the document to the city's website. A subsequent request for an additional purchase from Harris Corporation to not exceed $123,497.50 was approved by the Tempe City Council at their August 22, 2013 meeting.  Naturally, the details of the recent purchase by the Tempe Police Department from Harris Corporation are not available to the public.

The use of nondisclosure agreements between the government and private industry to hide the acquisition of spy equipment with very serious civil liberties implications is troubling, to say the least! Why doesn't the city want its residents to know about this technology?  As noted in the USA Today expose on the Stingray, there is a concern that the device could be used to identify the participants of a rally or protest for a political cause.  

As we have previously noted in our article on the Facial Recognition Unit of the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC), local law enforcement have repeatedly used tools that were purchased under the pretext of "fighting crime", but were actually used to spy on the participants in protests and activist events, many of whom had never been accused or convicted of a crime.

So what does this mean for the future of protest in Tempe, or any town where the cops have a Stingray?  It likely means that anyone carrying a cell phone could have their identity placed at the scene by police, despite any other precautions (such as wearing a mask to conceal the face).  With the lengthy history of the Tempe PD's Homeland Defense Unit's efforts to stifle free speech and assembly, and the coordination between valley Terrorism Liason Officers (TLO) to identify radicals and anarchists in the valley, it seems quite likely that the Stingray could be discreetly deployed at this weekend's anti-fascist counter-protest to the "White Man March."

And if you think the Tempe Police Department using the Stingray on Saturday to collect the identities of people protesting a white supremacist march (or just anyone on Mill Ave who may get lumped in) is without precedent, think again.  In 2003, the Miami-Dade Police Department purchased a Stingray in anticipation of protests aimed at the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) conference.  The department claimed the device was needed to monitor protests, and the "anticipated criminal activities" which they claimed would be organized by cell phone. Following the FTAA protests, the City of Miami, the Miami Police Department, and its officers, faced a number of lawsuits concerning the level of violence and brutality used by police against demonstrators, as well as complaints over the use of surveillance to target journalists for arrest.

With concerns over the use of the Stingray, and the Tempe PD's history of repression towards protest groups, we reached out to Sgt Michael Pooley, the Press Information Officer at Tempe.  We asked Sgt Pooley for comment on the use of the Stringray by the Tempe Police in regards to the possible "White Man March" and counter-demonstration this weekend. We also asked about any past use of the Stingray by police at protests, and if the department has any concerns over the privacy concerns of anyone ensnared in the department's data collection.  As of the time this article was published, there has been no response from Sgt Pooley, continuing the silence from Tempe on what appears to be a serious attack on civil liberty.

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