Yet the feds, invoking terror concerns, push to hide public records
Nine states this year have placed new legal limits on police cellphone surveillance after revelations that law enforcement agencies across the country are gathering data of thousands of people at once, often without warrants or regard to whether the subjects are targets of criminal investigations.
At least 10 additional legislatures weighed similar legislation after USA TODAY and affiliated newspapers and TV stations reported in December about widespread local and state police use of technology to gather cellphone records in bulk. Some individual police agencies tightened internal oversight, too.
Even so, federal law enforcement agencies continue to intervene to help local and state governments prevent release of public records about a secretive cell-snooping device called a Stingray. It acts as a fake cell tower, forcing all nearby mobile devices to connect to it and transmit location and other identifying data through it.
The U.S. Department of Justice, often invoking concerns about terrorism, has testified in cases and offered legal assistance to agencies fighting public records requests about Stingrays in Arizona, California and Florida.
After consulting with federal authorities and the device’s manufacturer, some local and state governments released mostly blacked-out purchase records. Many agencies said they limited release of even usually routine spending information because of homeland security concerns, although records obtained across the USA show police use Stingrays and related gear mostly for routine crime-fighting.
In Sarasota, Fla., in recent days, court records show the U.S. Marshals Service seized city police records about use of a Stingray device, which had been sought under the state’s open records law. The parties were in court last week as debate continues about whether the records
belong to Sarasota police or the U.S. Marshals Service.
“The concern here is they are intervening to prevent the release of basic accountability information about what government agencies are doing with public money, and whether they’re using it to violate people’s rights,” said Nathan Wessler, an attorney with the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, who has been requesting Stingray records across the U.S.
The invocation of homeland security and anti-terror concerns in local and state public records cases could place a “real chill” on journalists or private watchdog groups trying to get records about the spending of public money, and activities of local and state government, he said.
Despite efforts to stop release of records, USA TODAY-affiliated journalists continue to pry loose documentation about cellphone surveillance from reluctant agencies. In the initial wave of requests, three-dozen agencies first refused to release the records.
New records obtained in Florida, California and Wisconsin show at least 11 more local police agencies possess Stingray devices than USA TODAY reported inDecember.
That brings to at least 35 the number of agencies proven by public records to have the devices, most of which are shared widely with agencies that don’thave them.
► In California, The Desert Sunof Palm Springs obtained records proving the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department bought a Stingray, and News 10 in Sacramento confirmed seven agencies in its region own Stingrays. Two more Northern California agencies have grants to buy Stingrays this year.
► In Wisconsin, agencies released heavily redacted records showing the state Department of Justice and Milwaukee Police Department own Stingrays. The state lends the gear to cops in Wisconsin and beyond.
► In Florida, a judge disclosed Tallahassee police did not obtain a search warrant to enter a suspect’s apartment because they did not want to reveal the existence of the cellphone tracking technology despite an effort by local police — and intervention in court by the FBI — to keep Tallahassee’s use of Stingray secret.
RIGHTS VS. SECURITY
In oral arguments, Judge Robert Benton said there are 200 cases where police hadn’t sought search warrants because of the technology. After the Tallahassee Democrat reported the warrantless Stingray use, Michael DeLeo, chief of police of the Tallahassee Police Department, promised to boost internal oversight of officers’ cellphone tracking.
“We want to catch people who are preying on our community, but we also recognize the importance of people’s rights,” DeLeo said. The policy will “make sure that we don’t slip.”
Linda Lye, staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, laments the potential for mission creep. “The public and criminal defendants don’t have any idea what guidelines govern their use,” Lye said.