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Thursday, December 11, 2014

USA - Police keep quiet about cell-tracking technology

 Police say Stingray, a suitcase-size device that pretends it's a cell
> tower, is useful for catching criminals, but that's about all they'll
> say.
> By Jack Gillum
> Associated Press
> WASHINGTON -- Police across the country may be intercepting phone calls
> or text messages to find suspects using a technology tool known as
> Stingray. But they're refusing to turn over details about its use or
> heavily censoring files when they do.
> Police say Stingray, a suitcase-size device that pretends it's a cell
> tower, is useful for catching criminals, but that's about all they'll
> say.
> For example, they won't disclose details about contracts with the
> device's manufacturer, Harris Corp., insisting they are protecting
> both police tactics and commercial secrets. The secrecy -- at times
> imposed by nondisclosure agreements signed by police -- is pitting
> obligations under private contracts against government transparency
> laws.
> Even in states with strong open records laws, including Florida and
> Arizona, little is known about police use of Stingray and any rules
> governing it.
> A Stingray device tricks all cellphones in an area into electronically
> identifying themselves and transmitting data to police rather than the
> nearest phone company's tower. Because documents about Stingrays are
> regularly censored, it's not immediately clear what information the
> devices could capture, such as the contents of phone conversations and
> text messages, what they routinely do capture based on how they're
> configured or how often they might be used.
> In one of the rare court cases involving the device, the FBI
> acknowledged in 2011 that so-called cell site simulator technology
> affects innocent users in the area where it's operated, not just a
> suspect police are seeking.
> Earlier this month, journalist Beau Hodai and the American Civil
> Liberties Union of Arizona sued the Tucson Police Department, alleging
> in court documents that police didn't comply with the state's
> public-records law because they did not fully disclose
> Stingray-related records and allowed Harris Corp. to dictate what
> information could be made public.
> Revelations about surveillance programs run by the federal National
> Security Agency have driven a sustained debate since last summer on
> the balance between privacy and government intrusion. Classified NSA
> documents, leaked to news organizations, showed the NSA was collecting
> telephone records, emails and video chats of millions of Americans who
> were not suspected of crimes.
> That debate has extended to state and local governments. News
> organizations in Palm Springs, Calif.; Tallahassee, Fla.; Sacramento,
> Calif., and Pittsburgh are among those that have been denied records
> about Stingrays or Stingray-like devices, including details of
> contracts that Harris has with government agencies.
> In a response to a records request from the Tallahassee Democrat
> newspaper about Florida's use of cell-tracking technology, the state's
> top police agency provided a four-page, heavily censored document
> signed by a police investigator. The newspaper reported that the
> document referred to guidelines concerning the purchase of items and
> sought the department's agreement to the "provisions/content of the
> Non-Disclosure Agreement."
> The Desert Sun of Palm Springs made a similar request to the San
> Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, which said it had to maintain
> secrecy even though the newspaper found information online about cell
> site simulators.
> And in Sacramento, the local sheriff's office told a TV station it
> would "be inappropriate for us to comment about any agency that may be
> using the technology" in light of a Harris nondisclosure agreement.
> Many of the requests were part of an effort to investigate the devices
> by Gannett Co. Inc., which publishes USA Today and owns other
> newspapers and television stations around the country.
> "I don't see how public agencies can make up an agreement with a
> private company that breaks state law," said David Cuillier, the
> director of the University of Arizona's journalism school and a
> national expert on public-records laws. "We can't have the commercial
> sector running our governments for us. These public agencies need to
> be forthright and transparent."
> A representative for Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp. declined to
> comment or elaborate on how the company's agreements comport with open
> records laws. Court documents in Hodai's case show Harris' agreement
> required the Tucson city government not to "discuss, publish, release
> or disclose any information" about its products without the company's
> written consent.
> The agreement also required the city to contact Harris when it
> receives public-records requests about a "protected product," like a
> Stingray, so that the company can "challenge any such request in
> court." The police department declined to comment on Hodai's lawsuit.
> He had sought Harris contracts and police emails about how the
> technology is used. Email records show a Harris contract manager
> advised a Tucson police sergeant on what records couldn't be released
> to the public; the manager relied on the U.S. Freedom of Information
> Act, which governs records of the executive branch of the federal
> government.
> Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said there's
> often a distinction in public-records laws to protect bona fide trade
> secrets -- such as circuit board diagrams -- as opposed to broader
> information like agency policies governing a Stingray's use or
> purchase agreements. He said police in Florida have declined to tell
> judges about the use of Stingrays because of nondisclosure agreements.
> A December 2013 investigation by USA Today found roughly 1 in 4 law
> enforcement agencies it surveyed had performed tower dumps, and
> slightly fewer owned a Stingray. But the report also said 36
> additional agencies refused to provide details on their use, with most
> denying the newspaper's public-records requests.