The Tacoma Police Department in Washington state has been secretly using anti-terrorist cellphone interception technology to sweep up call records, texts and other sensitive data belonging to innocent civilians without a warrant for the last six years.
Tacoma PD is the latest law enforcement agency to publicly join the ranks of states using “stingray” wireless surveillance devices — originally intended for anti-terrorism defense operations — for routine police work. (RELATED: Court Approves Warrantless Use Of Police Anti-Terror Phone-Tracking Tech)
Stingray devices connect to local cell towers and collect real-time data from all cellphones within a given radius to intercept names, phone numbers, locations, call records, text messages and other private cellphone data. The device masks itself as a tower, and tricks phones into transmitting information directly. (RELATED: California police using secret anti-terrorism, phone-tracking tech for ‘routine police work’)
Tacoma prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges — all of whom routinely deal with court evidence collected with the technology — were reportedly unaware of the specifics surrounding its existence or use, according to a report in The News Tribune.
“If they use it wisely and within limits, that’s one thing,” Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper told The News Tribune. “I would certainly, personally, have some concerns about just sweeping up information from non-involved and innocent parties — and to do it with a whole neighborhood? That’s concerning.”
Tacoma City Council members were also unaware, despite approving funds for a device update last year.
“I’ve got to find out what I voted on before I comment,” Councilman David Boe said in the report. “This is new information.”
The department has not confirmed it has a stingray, but purchase documents for the device exist, and a Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman confirmed Tacoma PD occasionally helps the sheriff’s office with the device. According to the department, it cannot speak about such technology due to an FBI nondisclosure agreement.
Documents cited in the report obtained from the department, despite being heavily redacted, indicate Tacoma police have had the ability to deploy a stingray since 2008.
“They are essentially searching the homes of innocent Americans to find one phone used by one person,” American Civil Liberties Union technologist Christopher Soghoian said in the report. The ACLU, along with other privacy and civil liberties advocates, claim the devices violate the Fourth Amendment by intercepting wireless signals indiscriminately and without a warrant, instead of targeting specific individuals with probable cause or reasonable suspicion.
“It’s like they’re kicking down the doors of 50 homes and searching 50 homes because they don’t know where the bad guy is.”
The ACLU recently lost a court request for documents pertaining to the use of stingray tech in a Florida police department. A state circuit judge was forced to throw out the request in June after U.S. Marshals unexpectedly seized the documents from the department in question and physically carried them hundreds of miles away. (RELATED: After Feds Snatch Documents From Police Station, Judge Throws Out Phone Spying Case)