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San Diego Police SDPD sued over cellular tracking technology

On Behalf of | Dec 18, 2014 | Firm News |

This is just a sad state of affairs.  There is no public discussion whether the technology should be used against the people of San Diego.

It is mass surveillance.  It also “tricks” all phones and gives up information.  Information that the founders would have held as private.  This is not a national security device.  This is a device by a local city agency in the form of San Diego Police.  This is an issue that should be debated by the people of San Diego.  The discussion cannot begin without the basic information of the program.  It should never have been implemented without this debate.


The San Diego Police Department is being sued by a civil rights organization demanding more information about how the department uses a controversial cellphone tracking technology, information the group says should be disclosed under the California Public Records Act.

For months, the department has been tight-lipped about whether or not it has or uses what are known as a Stingray, also known as International Mobile Subscriber Identity catcher. The tracking device masquerades as a cellphone tower, tricking nearby cellphones into connecting with it and giving law enforcement agencies access to information from the phones.

In its lawsuit, the First Amendment Coalition included a heavily redacted invoice provided by the department. It confirms the department has spent $33,000 on the possession or use of the technology, but the department has refused to provide more information to the coalition or to news organizations.

“Without having basic information about whether they even have the technology, let alone how they’re using it… how do we have that conversation about the merits of surveilling citizens,” said coalition Attorney Kelly Aviles.

The civil rights group, which promotes free speech, open and accountable government and public engagement in civic affairs, asserts that California law requires the department to provide such information as procedures governing the technology’s use, any warrants sought in connection with the device and training materials.

The department refused its requests, saying the information the coalition was requesting “would reveal security or intelligence information” and was exempt from disclosure, according to the lawsuit.

In a statement, the City Attorney’s office said the U.S. Department of Justice directed that “information regarding the equipment must not be disclosed because to do so would potentially endanger the lives and physical safety of law enforcement officers and adversely impact criminal and national security investigations. The city is obligated to follow that direction and will do so absent further direction from the Department of Justice or a court order.”

A number of news organizations have taken a closer look at how the technology works, yet its capabilities are still shrouded in secrecy. According to an investigation into the Stingray by USA Today, the device can pick up the telephone numbers and identification numbers of phones that connect to the device, the location of connected phones and numbers dialed by intercepted cells.

Law enforcement agencies that have used it have said calls and text messages aren’t intercepted.

Aviles said it is particularly important to have a conversation about the technology because of how indiscriminate it is.

“This isn’t just a technology that focuses on the subject of the investigation,” she said. “It’s sweeps up of information from all of our cellphones,” she said.

Aviles said the coalition wants to know what is done with any intercepted data and whether a warrant was obtained before the device was used.

“And what is being provided in that warrant and how accurate are they describing the technology’s use?” she said.

David Loy, the legal director for ACLU of San Diego and the Imperial Counties, used even stronger language to describe the technology.

“It’s essentially a form of mass surveillance and that’s extremely troubling, and the public has the right to know if that is how, in fact, the San Diego Police Department is employing this technology,” Loy said.

He said asking for information that governs the technology’s use is no different than asking for any policy that dictates how police exercise their power.

“There’s nothing more important and potentially dangerous then the unbridled exercise of law enforcement power,” he said. “So we, the public, have the absolute right to know what police department is doing with our money and how it’s impacting our privacy.”

Both the ACLU and Aviles contend that the information requested would not impede law enforcement investigations.

When whistle blower Edward Snowden revealed how the National Security Administration was collecting the data of U.S. citizens, discussion erupted around the balance between First Amendment rights and the need for safety.

Aviles said a similar discussion should be had about law enforcement’s use of technologies like Stingrays, “But none of those conversations can be intelligently debated if you don’t have the basic information about what they’re doing.”

The full article can be found here.

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