A Florida judge has thrown out a case examining a state police department’s secret phone spying program after U.S. Marshals seized documents detailing the program’s technology from the station.
State circuit court Judge Charles Williams had no choice but to toss the American Civil Liberties Union’s request for records detailing the department’s use of classified anti-terrorism phone surveillance technology, as the court has no authority over federal agents.
U.S. Marshals made a surprise move late last month when they swept into the Sarasota Police Department and seized files detailing a controversial and largely unknown surveillance tool called “Stingray,” and physically carried the documents hundreds of miles away.
Stingray is the name of a specific product manufactured by the Florida-based Harris corporation, but has become a blanket term for international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catchers, which simulate cellphone towers to trick mobile phones into connecting with them and disclosing locations, calls and texts along with other potential private data.
The ACLU filed a request for public records detailing Stingray use in a case investigated by Sarasota detectives, and had an appointment to review the records on the same day they were grabbed by the Marshals Service, which claimed they belonged to the federal government.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Nathan Freed Wessler said the federal government’s actions were “truly extraordinary and beyond the worst transparency violations” the organization had ever seen.
“This is consistent with what we’ve seen around the country with federal agencies trying to meddle with public requests for stingray information,” Wessler said in a Wired report. “The feds are working very hard to block any release of this information to the public.”
Federal officials have invoked the Homeland Security Act on multiple occasions to keep Stingray specs from getting out, and very few specific details about the technology are known to the public. Sarasota is one of a number of police departments speculated of using the technology, which was designed for anti-terrorism operations, for “routine police work.”
“We’ve seen our fair share of federal government attempts to keep records about stingrays secret, but we’ve never seen an actual physical raid on state records in order to conceal them from public view,” the ACLU wrote in a blog post following the incident.
Florida ACLU Vice President Michael Barfield said they plan to fight this week’s court’s ruling.
“I can guarantee you that we will move to unseal them and we also are evaluating our options in terms of appealing the judge’s decision because we never had an opportunity to address a critical factual issue in his ruling,” Barfield said in an Ars Technica report, alleging that because the records were held in a state police department, they fall under state jurisdiction as opposed to federal.
“When the government goes to such lengths to keep the public in the dark about its warrantless spying on citizens, then the requirement that courts approve of government searches is rendered pointless,” Barfield said in an e-mail. “Both the federal and local governments need to respect open records laws so the public knows what police are doing in their name.”