Police departments throughout the U.S. have been instructed by the FBI to keep quiet about their use of “stingray” cellphone trackers, but a recently uncovered letter from the agency to Minnesota police reveals the FBI is helping them circumvent Freedom of Information Act requests as well.
Stingrays are cellphone signal interception devices that masquerade as cellphone towers, tricking devices into connecting with them and granting police access to call records, texts, pictures, location and other content and metadata.
Manufactured by the Florida-based Harris Corporation and deployed to departments throughout the U.S. in conjunction with the FBI, the devices were originally intended to be used for anti-terrorism operations, but have been increasingly used for routine police work in recent years, often without a warrant.
Since the widespread deployment of the tech, the FBI, local police and Harris have remained tight-lipped about the tech’s capabilities and how it’s deployed — even going as far as sending U.S. marshals to physically seize documents detailing stingray use from a Florida police department last year to avoid their imminent disclosure by a state judge. (RELATED: Judge Throws Out Phone Spying Case After Feds Snatch Documents From Police Station)
In a letter from June 2012 recently obtained by the Minneapolis Star Tribune and cited in an Ars Technica report, the FBI instructed the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to report any Freedom of Information Act requests related to stingrays to the agency, which would then take steps “to prevent disclosure.”
“In the event that the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension receives a request pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (5 USC 552) or an equivalent state or local law, the civil or criminal discovery process, or other judicial, legislative, or administrative process, to disclose information concerning the Harris Corporation [REDACTED] the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will immediately notify the FBI of any such request telephonically and in writing in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to seek to prevent disclosure through appropriate channels,” the letter written in conjunction with Harris reads.
The letter is similar to one disclosed via a FOIA request last year between the FBI and police is Tacoma, Wash., which ordered the department to complete a non-disclosure agreement for acquiring the tech — a mandate required by the FCC. (RELATED: Stingray Developer Misled FCC To Sell Cellphone Tracking Tech To Police)
“It is surprising in the sense that it seems like just a completely inappropriate and over-broad use of federal authority,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Nathan Wessler said in the Ars report.
“What is most egregious about this is that, in order for local police to use and purchase stingrays, they have to get approval from the FBI, then the FBI knows that dozens of police departments are using them around the country. And yet when members of the press or the public seek basic information about how people in local communities are being surveilled, the FBI invokes these very serious national security concerns to try to keep that information private.”