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Feds tell local law enforcement to remain silent about cellphone surveillance

Posted Jun 13, 2014 1:45 PM CDT
By Victor Li

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Updated: The federal government is putting pressure on local law enforcement to keep quiet about its use of Stingray and other surveillance technology used to gather data off of mobile phones.

The Associated Press reports that the Obama administration has taken the rare step of becoming actively involved with state records request cases and local criminal trials in an effort to keep details of its surveillance secret. As a result, the AP reports that police departments have either refused to turn over, or have heavily redacted, documents and materials relating to such surveillance.

One well-known piece of technology used by cops is Stingray. The device gathers information off a mobile phone by impersonating a cell tower and getting a phone to transmit data to it. According to the AP, Stingray allows police to obtain data off a mobile phone without having to get the cooperation of a user’s mobile carrier, like Verizon Wireless or AT&T.

Several civil liberties groups have tried to get state and federal agencies to release more information about what kind of information they are taking. "These extreme secrecy efforts are in relation to very controversial, local government surveillance practices using highly invasive technology," said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, to the AP. "If public participation means anything, people should have the facts about what the government is doing to them."

Earlier this month, American Civil Liberties Union asked a judge for an emergency motion (PDF) requiring asking a Sarasota Police Department detective to make records of the department's Stingray use available via a Freedom of Information Act request, Ars Technica's Law & Disorder blog reported. The U.S. Marshals Service deputized that detective and asserted that the records were no longer available under Florida law. In a decision (PDF) issued June 17, state circuit court Judge Charles Williams ruled that his court lacked jurisdiction over a federal agency and dismissed the case. Michael Barfield, vice president of the ACLU of Florida told Law & Disorder that he planned to appeal.

The FBI is contesting a lawsuit filed in Tucson, Ariz, that seeks to force it to give up its information by claiming that such disclosures would “result in the FBI's inability to protect the public from terrorism and other criminal activity because through public disclosures, this technology has been rendered essentially useless for future investigations.”

Updated June 23 to note the Florida case.

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