woensdag 19 februari 2014
The Koyal Training Group: Law enforcement officials: Cell phone disclosures would hurt investigations
An Inland Empire sheriff’s department has used a high-tech device for the past seven years that enables the agency to collect data on private cell phone calls in targeted areas.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has been using the device, called an international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) locator, since 2006 and won approval to buy an updated model, at a cost of $429,613, in December 2012, county documents show.
Sold under the brand name of Stingray, the locator device is a suitcase-sized piece of hardware manufactured exclusively by Florida-based Harris Corp. Typically installed in a vehicle so it can be moved easily into any area, the device masquerades as a cell tower, tricking all nearby cell phones to hook up to it and feed data to law enforcement or other security personnel.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Inland Regional Narcotics Enforcement Team would use the wireless receiving system, as it is referred to in a Dec. 18, 2012, staff report, “to combat major narcotics and money laundering operations.”
“The system can also be used to locate suspects, victims, and for search/rescue operations. The new system provides dramatic increases in speed, accuracy, and data retrieval,” the report added.
That brief description is the only technical information on the device contained in the one-page staff report provided to the county Board of Supervisors before that December 2012 vote to approve the purchase. The report was Item 87, out of 91, on the supervisors’ consent calendar, and passed unanimously without discussion.
It is also the only information the Sheriff’s Department was willing to release in response to a public records request from The Desert Sun on the department’s use of cell phone surveillance techniques for the past five years.
“The investigators that use that device, it wouldn’t be effective if we told everyone how it works and how we use it,” said Cindy Bachman, an agency spokeswoman who said she doesn’t know how the locator works.
The sheriff’s department also claimed such records were exempt from disclosure under provisions of California’s public records law that cover investigative records.
The request was part of a larger Desert Sun investigation into cell phone surveillance in the Inland Empire, covering both IMSI locators and tower dumps, another surveillance strategy in which police ask cell phone companies to provide all cell phone data from a specific tower for a given period of time.
Both tower dumps and the use of IMSI locators are typically done under legal search warrants. Still, some privacy and First Amendment watchdog groups consider their use controversial, maintaining such surveillance is too broad, inclusive and not well overseen.
While the mass data obtained in these searches may not include a cell phone owner’s name, the information could be used to track movements of a specific number. Police might use such initial data to ask for another court order for more information, including addresses, billing records and logs of calls, texts and locations.
The First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit group based in San Rafael, used a public records request to unearth information showing the Los Angeles Police Department had used an IMSI locator in 21 investigations over a four-month period, June 1-Sept. 30, 2012.
“The judges or other judicial magistrates who were signing off on warrants or whatever legal authorization it was that they were putting signatures to, I had serious doubts whether they were made aware that they were authorizing a search that was not targeted to a specific individual,” Peter Scheer, the coalition’s executive director, said in a December interview. “Rather they were signing off on the use of a device which would be gathering that kind of information from many if not all cell phones that are within the particular range of the technology.”
Growing trend of surveillance
While law enforcement agencies such as the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department maintain the need for secrecy on their use of cell phone surveillance, finding general information on tower dumps and IMSI locators is not difficult. A computer search on either term will turn up thousands of hits.
The growing use of other data-mining technology, from monitoring toll road payments and the use of license plate scanners by agencies in Riverside and San Bernardino counties and cameras at red lights and other public places also reflect a broader trend of pervasive public surveillance.
An investigation of 125 police agencies in 33 states by USA Today, The Desert Sun and other Gannett newspapers found that one in four have used tower dumps and at least 25 own a StingRay.
The Desert Sun’s report, published in December, revealed that the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has used tower dumps and other methods of cell phone surveillance.
Like the San Bernardino department, the Riverside Sheriff’s refused The Desert Sun public records request for more detailed information on its use of tower dumps. The records are, the department said, part of “investigative files ... compiled for law enforcement purposes. It is considered an ongoing investigation and prosecution.”
But the department did release invoices showing it has requested tower dumps or the tracking of specific cell phone numbers from two cell phone companies, Sprint and T-Mobile, including two cases in Palm Desert. Other cell phone surveillance operations were billed to the Temecula Police, to Riverside County’s special enforcement team in Perris and to the special investigations bureau of Riverside County.
The Desert Sun obtained two additional cell phone surveillance invoices, both in 2012 and billed to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. Information about the location and the description of what investigators were looking for was blacked out.
Riverside County provided records of six cell phone tower surveillance bills for 2012 and one for 2013, totaling $7,338.
Capt. Jon Anderson, formerly with the department’s Special Investigations Bureau, said the department obtains a search warrant before submitting any cell phone surveillance requests to a cell company. The department’s use of tower dumps is infrequent and not a first line in the investigations in which they have been requested, he said.
“They are very labor intensive,” Anderson said. “If you ask for one, you’re doing one of two things — you’re looking to see if a specific number is in or around the area, or you’re looking for information that will connect a specific phone number (with a crime).”
Sgt. Mike Manning, a department spokesman, added that a judge’s order also would be needed for the agency to release any cell phone information obtained with a legal search warrant.
The First Amendment Coalition’s investigation of the Los Angeles Police Department gave an indication of the range of cases the technology is being used in to investigate.
The department’s breakdown of the cases included five homicide investigations, three kidnappings, two attempted murders, two suicides and two missing persons, along with one each for a range of investigations from rape to narcotics.
Police departments’ increasing use of cell phone surveillance has raised issues of when and under what circumstances people’s expectations of privacy can be violated. The combination of the pervasive use of cell phones and other digital devices in daily life and recent revelations of widespread digital surveillance by the National Security Agency has focused public attention on the issue.
Some privacy experts note that Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches do not apply to information given to a company, such as the records of calls people make on their cell phones or the location data they routinely allow companies such as Google or Facebook to access from digital devices. Nor do privacy protections apply to a person’s movements in public spaces.
But Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said that law enforcement’s ability to track people’s movements through tower dumps or IMSI devices crosses a line.
“When technology allows you to get a record of a person’s location over an extended period of time, that’s different from discrete movement (in public places),” Fakhoury said. “It’s protected by an expectation of privacy.”
“If you’re targeting a person in an apartment building, you can get the data but you also have the capacity to get the same for every other cell phone in that building,” Scheer said. “Giving that information to a company like Google versus giving that information to a police agency or federal agency, those are two very different things.”