Saturday, June 14, 2014

Scottsdale Police join ranks of Valley cops using "Stingray" device to spy on cell phones

As we revealed in a recent post, the Tempe Police Department has made at least two purchases of the Stingray device from the Harris Corporation, both shrouded in secrecy due to a non-disclosure agreement.  We can now reveal that another valley police department is in possession of a Stingray device. Down & Drought has learned that the Scottsdale Police Department used the controversial Stingray surveillance device on 29 "missions" in 2010, citing a Scottsdale police report which identifies the device by name in a section on the department's Technical Operations Unit.

The 2010 annual report appears to be the only public admission of Scottsdale's use of a Stingray, no other web searches by Down & Drought could find any other reference of the device by the City of Scottsdale or Scottsdale Police Department.  In the 2010 City of Scottsdale Annual Report, the Stingray is mentioned briefly in the section on the Scottsdale Police Department's Special Investigations Section Technical Operations.  According to the report, the Technical Operations Unit is "responsible for the installation and maintenance of technical surveillance equipment and systems. The Tech Ops Unit assists other work groups within the police department, including Patrol, with special technical investigative assistance." 

Police departments across the valley, and through out Arizona, are increasingly utilizing electronic surveillance devices to eavesdrop and record information with very little public knowledge about the techniques being used in the mass gathering of private and confidential information of individuals.  In an article published in March on Down & Drought, we raised concerns over the civil rights implications of the Tempe Police Department's use of an electronic surveillance device called the Stingray by citing the secrecy surrounding the devices as a result of a contractual confidentiality agreement between the City of Tempe and the manufacturer of the Stingray, the Harris Corporation.

It has been confirmed, through articles from the Arizona Republic and statements from the Arizona branch of the ACLU, that police departments in the valley, and across Arizona have purchased Stingray technology.  The AZCLU's Alessandra Meetze identified the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, the Gilbert PD, and Glendale PD as valley departments in use of the Stingray device, and the Pinal County Sheriff's Department and Flagstaff PD as agencies outside the valley with Stingrays. A subsequent Arizona Republic article from December 2013 identified the Mesa PD and Phoenix PD as departments using the Stingray, with Phoenix having one in use since 2001.

The Stingray is a surveillance technology used by police to imitate a cell phone tower causing every cell phone and wireless device within range to connect with the police tower and unwittingly sharing data.  As of now, there is no way for an individual to know if their cell phone or wireless device is currently having its communications and data intercepted by police.

Scrutiny from media outlets over the Stingray technology has intensified in recent weeks after US Marshals intervened in a public records request regarding a Florida police department's use of the device.  Wired writer Kim Zetter has followed the legal battles over the non-disclosure agreements which protect police departments from releasing any information on their purchases from the Harris Corporation.  In her most recent piece on the Stingray, she covered the eyebrow raising actions of the  US Marshals seizing records requested by the ACLU regarding the Stingray's use by detectives from the Sarasota Police Department. While this brazen intervention by federal authorities has shocked civil libertarians, such efforts to thwart a public records request are common. The FBI routinely has its agents working to obscure the price, function, and uses of the Stingray device by testifying in courtroom hearings that the secrecy is necessary to stop criminal targets from learning how police may be monitoring their activities.

Most troubling is the revelation, which came from the Associated Press, that the Obama administration is actively advising local law enforcement agencies to not disclose the details of their agreements with the Harris Corporation, or the applications of the secret surveillance technology used for the Stingray device.  Whereas the FBI's public defense of the non-disclosure agreements concerned "criminals" evading the device's detection, the Obama administration is defending the secrecy surrounding the device on the grounds that to reveal any information could constitute a threat to national security. As Washington Post columnist Radley Balko remarked this week, if revealing the particulars of this device is such a threat to national security, then why is it being widely used by local police departments across the country?

Since it seems likely that these devices will continue to be used in greater number across the country, and not seized as Balko jests, then it is imperative that the core questions regarding these devices be answered.  How do they work, how many are they, how many people are going to prison due to their use, and how can an individual prevent such a device from accessing their personal information on a wireless device.  Until that occurs, it's safe to presume that the Stingray, and similar devices, can do a lot more than log call information and triangulate an individuals location, and the public deserves to know how they're being spied on this time