Anaheim Police have spent several years secretly building an inventory of powerful cell phone surveillance devices and making them available to neighboring cities in Orange County, documents turned over to the ACLU of California reveal.
This cell phone spying program – which potentially affects the privacy of everyone from Orange County’s 3 million residents to the 16 million people who visit Disneyland every year – shows the dangers of allowing law enforcement to secretly acquire surveillance technology.
The devices include the suitcase-sized “Stingray” which mimics a cell tower and tricks nearby cell phones into communicating with it. These devices interact with all cell phones in radio range, meaning they potentially retain data about the communications and locations of innocent people.
The documents strongly suggest that Anaheim also bought a lightweight device called a Jugular which allows individual officers to easily conduct cell phone surveillance around and inside of buildings, including private homes, without alerting bystanders.
The police also bought a military-grade piece of equipment known as a “dirtbox,” capable of collecting information about thousands of phones at once. An early version can intercept and record digital voice data, according to a classified catalog recently leaked to the media.
If a city of just over 350,000 people like Anaheim has purchased this wide array of devices, it begs the question of how widespread these tools really are.
It’s bad enough that Anaheim’s secretive acquisition of this surveillance technology deprived the city’s residents of the opportunity to participate in critical decisions affecting their own community.
But by loaning out this technology, the police department has subjected people all over Orange County to surveillance decisions made by leaders from other communities.
Governments have gone to great lengths to hide information about how cell site simulators work and are used. Anaheim’s secrecy here is not an accident.
The city and its departments bought these devices in secret and initially refused the ACLU’s request for public records. Only after the ACLU sued for the records did Anaheim produce any documents, albeit heavily redacted.
Anaheim’s purchase of spy technology goes back at least to 2009 when the police department used a federal grant to purchase a “dirtbox” from a Maryland-based company named Digital Receiver Technology, Inc., or DRT.
In 2011, Anaheim appears to have bought a Stingray from Florida-based Harris Corp using a combination of federal grant dollars and local funds. And in 2013, Anaheim’s Chief of Police approved an upgrade to the department’s Stingray the ACLU believes enabled it to monitor modern LTE cellular networks used by millions of customers on Apple, Samsung, and other smartphones.
Finally, in late 2013 Anaheim also purchased a Jugular, the controversial hand-held cell phone surveillance device manufactured by a company called KEYW and marketed as a tool for covertly locating phones and LTE signals in hard-to-reach places, including the interiors of buildings.
The documents obtained in the public records suit do not disclose whether Anaheim police investigators obtain a warrant before using these devices.
The records state that Anaheim obtains a “court order” or “court approval” for use of the DRT, the Jugular and StingRay devices, but a court order is not necessarily based on probable cause, as is required for a warrant.
This is important because devices like the Jugular can be used to find cell signals inside homes where people have the right to be secure from unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment.
Documents surrendered to the ACLU predate CalECPA, the new California law requiring a warrant for these devices. We do not know what legal process Anaheim seeks for cell phone surveillance today.
Law enforcement entities should never acquire surveillance technology without telling the public, let alone multiple generations of devices capable of spying on private communications, as these Anaheim documents show.
Anaheim’s gradual slide towards more and more surveillance illustrates the risks of secret surveillance outside of the democratic process.
But communities are fighting back. As federal and state policymakers pass new restrictions on cell surveillance devices, local communities are moving forward with surveillance reforms that range from robust use policies for Stingrays to civilian oversight communities to an ordinance that requires transparency, accountability, and oversight for all surveillance technologies.
The ACLU is are hopeful these reforms will also take hold in places like Anaheim so that when police seek the next generation of surveillance technologies, it won’t take the public seven years and a lawsuit to find out about it.
Matt Cagle is the Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California.
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