The Obama administration has been intervening in public records requests that are seeking information from local police departments about a piece of cellphone surveillance equipment that is able to sweep data from entire neighborhoods.
Stingray is one brand of the surveillance equipment. Developed by Harris Corp., it gathers phone data by acting as a stand-alone cellphone tower. This tricks devices in its vicinity to send it data, which police officers are able to gather.
But according to the Associated Press, when groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have sought information from police departments on how these devices are being used and how much is being spent on them, the Obama administration, citing security reasons, has stepped in to prevent any information from being released.
In a challenge to a records request denial from the Tuscon Police Department, an FBI special agent stated in an affidavit that disclosing details of the surveillance equipment would “result in the FBI’s inability to protect the public from terrorism and other criminal activity because through public disclosures, this technology has been rendered essentially useless for future investigations,” according to the Associated Press.
Tuscon police were also instructed by federal lawyers to refrain from turning over a PowerPoint presentation that showed how the Stingray device works, according to a law enforcement official.
The news service noted that it is unusual for the federal government to intervene in local public records requests.
In Sarasota, Fla., the U.S. Marshals Service confiscated local police records of the surveillance equipment after the ACLU requested them, the Associated Press reports.
In a Tallahassee, Fla. criminal case, local prosecutors informed the court that they consulted with the FBI to keep sealed a transcript that reveals how Stingray devices work. The transcript, which was ultimately revealed, shows that Stringray works by forcing cellphones to register their location and identification with the device. This allows police to track users’ phone calls, according to the Associated Press.
“It’s troubling to think the FBI can just trump the state’s open records law,” Ginger McCall, director of the Open Government Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Associated Press.
“The vast amount of information it sweeps in is totally irrelevant to the investigation,” she said.
An upgrade to Stingray — known as Hailstorm — is being used in Oakland County, Mich. Police there are one of about two dozen agencies using the device, according to the Detroit News. The devices cost around $170,000, though the police department relied on a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to make the purchase.
The Detroit News also filed an open records request seeking information on the device, but it was denied.
County officials blocked the request by saying that anti-terror laws and “investigating records compiled for law enforcement purposes that would disclose law enforcement investigative techniques or procedures.”
It is unclear whether the Obama administration intervened in the Detroit News’ records request, as it has with other cases throughout the U.S.