Requests for documents have revealed not only that law enforcement in Washington, DC long ago acquired a controversial cellphone surveillance system known as a “Stingray,” but also let it sit around unused for around six years.
Investigative journalists have been increasingly successful in recent months with regards to acquiring documentation and evidence concerning the use of Stingray and other surveillance systems by police departments across the United States. According to some of the latest reports, however, the Metropolitan Police Department in the nation’s capital indeed acquired a Stingray, but waited more than half-a-decade until its officers were actually showed how to use it.
Documents obtained recently by reporters at both Vice News and Ars Technica have confirmed that the MPD sat on its Stingray for ages. As RT reported previously, such devices trick traditional mobile phones into sending geographically-sensitive details that could then be used by the system’s owner, such as a police department, to pinpoint the location of a person of interest. At the same time, however, these systems also have a tendency of collecting location information for a major swath of cell phone users, raising numerous concerns in recent months over the general public’s right to privacy.
Last week, Jason Leopold wrote for Vice that the MPD took a $260,000 grant from the US Department of Homeland Security in 2003 to buy a Stingray system. Training cops on how to use it, however, was something that apparently wasn’t in the budget.
“The rationale behind the DHS grant to MPD and other law enforcement agencies was to help them secure new anti-terrorism technology from private corporations. But the grant fell a little short, because the MPD couldn’t come up with the extra several thousands [sic] dollars it needed to train officers how to use and maintain Stingray – so the device sat unused in an ‘Electronic Surveillance Unit equipment vault’ at the department for more than five years,” Leopold wrote last week. “In 2008, the DC police decided to dust off and upgrade its Stingray tracking device after the department secured another federal grant. But officials appeared to no longer see it as a way to combat terrorism, fears of which had decreased significantly since 2003. Instead, they sought to use it for routine investigations involving drug trafficking and common criminals.”
“It’s life imitating The Wire,” Chris Soghoian, a principle technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Ars ahead of their report this week. “There’s an episodein Season 3 where [Detective Jimmy] McNulty finds a [Stingray] that has been sitting on the shelf for a while.”
According to Ars reporter Cyrus Farivar, MPD officers weren’t trained on using the device until December 2008. At that point, he wrote, a recently released member out of DC’s Narcotics and Special Investigations Division suggests cops were finally offered a five-day workshop on the technology.
“The [REDACTED] will be used by MPD to track cellular phones possessed by criminal offenders and/or suspected terrorists by using wireless technology to triangulate the location of the phone,” reads part of the Dec. 2008 memo cited by Farivar. “The ability to [REDACTED] in the possession of criminal will allow MPD to track their exact movement, as well as pinpoint their current locations for rapid apprehension. The procurement of this equipment will increase the number of MPD arrests for fugitives, drug traffickers, and violent offenders (robbery, ADW, Homicide), while reducing the time it takes to locate dangerous offenders that need to be removed from the streets of DC.”
One month later in January 2009, Farivar added, a separate document announced that Harris Corporation, the publically-traded defense contractor that markets the surveillance systems, would show MPD officers “procedures for obtaining court orders and subpoenas.”
“This language suggests that both the firm and law enforcement believe that stingrays can be used without the high bar of a probable cause-driven warrant,” Farivar suggested. “Unfortunately, legal experts say that this new revelation likely won’t have much impact on Capitol Hill. Soghoian, of the ACLU, said that it will take a serious incident for Congress to do anything significant about Stingrays.”
Although journalists have been successful as of late in uncovering more and more evidence of Stingray use from coast-to-coast, RT reported last month that newly unearthed documents between law enforcement officials in Tacoma, Washington and federal authorities suggest that police department interested in acquiring such systems are routinely asked to enter a non-disclosure agreement concerning the technology.
“The Tacoma document provides key insight into the close cooperation among the FBI, Harris Corporation and the Federal Communications Commission to bar StingRay details from public release,” Shawn Musgrave of Muckrock wrote last month. ““The fact that the FBI received notification from Harris that TPD was interested in a StingRay reveals a surprising level of coordination between a private corporation and a federal law enforcement agency.”