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Activists Suspect Baltimore Police Illegally Use Cellphone Trackers

AFP / PAUL J. RICHARDS / Getty Images

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Eric Lieberman Deputy Editor
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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received a civil complaint from civil liberties organizations asking the federal agency to investigate Baltimore Police Department’s use of cellphone tracking devices.

The complaint alleges that the Baltimore police illegally use Stingray devices (also called cell site simulators) that act as fake cellphone towers in order to track a suspect’s location. The appeal cites federal law, specifically the Communications Act, which mandates that tracking the location of a suspect through a mobile phone requires a license.

An FCC official told The Washington Post that local police agencies are not required to have a license under the law because of an exemption. But the Post contends that the FCC spokesperson “could not give a clear explanation.”

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a new policy for the use of cell site simulators in September that is intended to “enhance transparency and accountability, improve training and supervision, establish a higher and more consistent legal standard and increase privacy protections in relation to law enforcement’s use of this critical technology.” But at least according to the implementation of the tools, the law does not apply to state and local law enforcement.

The Stingray devices pull data from innocent bystanders who happen to be in proximity to the targeted suspect.

The civil complaint admits it has no concrete evidence yet. “But the opaqueness of its secret and unwritten use policy, combined with its pattern of hampering speech and its history of surveilling protestors, suggest that is a likely possibility,” the letter reads.

The groups also claim that the use of cell site simulators, which “are powerful, invasive and harmful surveillance devices,” disproportionately affect black residents and “disrupts emergency calling services.”

The civil complaint comes just after the DOJ released the findings of an investigation that revealed the Baltimore police engaged in a “pattern of constitutional violations” including “illegal stops, searches, and arrests” that arose from the “‘Zero Tolerance’ Enforcement Strategy.”

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