Orange County supervisors voted without discussion and in less time than it took to read the agenda’s one sentence summary, to buy a $3.6 million surveillance plane for the Sheriff’s Department.
The new “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” aircraft was authorized June 26 on a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Shawn Nelson casting the no vote. He didn’t explain why he opposed it.
The plane’s purchase and operation will be funded by property seized by federal and local law enforcement in connection with narcotics cases, known as “asset forfeiture” funds, according to the staff report and budget documents.
It took 15 seconds for the county clerk to read the item aloud. The supervisors immediately authorized the purchase without discussion, which took roughly 10 seconds.
They approved a no-bid, $3.6 million sole source contract with Air Bear Tactical Aircraft to purchase a Mahindra Aerospace Airvan-8 outfitted with surveillance equipment.
Sheriff’s officials said the aircraft is for the county’s Regional Narcotics Suppression Program (RNSP), a federal, state and local task force “whose primary mission is to target, investigate and prosecute individuals who organize, direct, finance or otherwise engage in high-level drug trafficking or money laundering organizations.”
In their staff report to the supervisors, sheriff’s officials said they were requesting the “new airplane with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment in order to replace an aging airplane and outdated equipment.
“For officer safety reasons, it is necessary to replace the current Cessna 182, which is 37 years old,” with the new plane, the report states.
The Airvan-8 is the only aircraft with the necessary surveillance equipment for law enforcement purposes, according the sole source request form.
Law enforcement agencies across California have used cell phone monitoring surveillance equipment, in some cases equipping vehicles or aircrafts with devices known informally as “Stingrays” or “dirtboxes.”
The devices have sparked criticism from civil liberties advocates because they have the ability to track all cell phones within their range without needing to go through phone companies.
The Legislature passed laws in 2015 requiring local law enforcement agencies to form and disclose policies to the public on how they use license plate readers and cell phone monitoring equipment.
Carrie Braun, the Sheriff’s Department Public Information Officer said no Stingrays or similar cell phone monitoring equipment will be installed in the Airvan-8. Anaheim police own a dirtbox device they have used from the city’s airplane, which has been the subject of ongoing controversy.
The Sheriff’s Department budgeted $450,000 to buy and install a Stingray II in the 2013 fiscal year, according to county records. However, the project was not executed, according Braun.
“The Sheriff’s Department does not have a stingray or similar device. The cost was too great,” Braun said in an email.
“We [Sheriff’s Department] do not own any of that technology so it is not something they would be utilizing on this plane. It’s not something the Sheriff’s Department owns,” Braun said. “Anything along the lines of Stingray or dirtbox or those types of technology, we do not own.”
However, she said they do have access to this type of equipment through another task force, but would only access it in extreme situations. Braun would not identify that task force.
“An extreme case would be an imminent and extreme threat to the community,” Braun said in an email.
The sheriff’s $450,000 Stingray II project was listed in county budget and technology project documents from 2012 through fiscal year 2015. And in 2014, the Sheriff’s Department told KABC-TV it was “in the process of purchasing Stingray-type technology from Harris Corporation,” according to the station.
An Orange County IT (information technology) project status report from 2012, says the “STINGRAY II is mobile cell phone tracking forensic hardware and software. When cell phones are on, they automatically look for cell sites around them in order to connect to the telephone company network. The Stingray antenna is a high-powered cell site simulator to which any cell phone near enough will connect.”
The Stingray, according to the county records, can “locate a cell phone and GPS tracking by scanning for its emissions,” and mimic “a cell phone tower to force cell phones in the area to reveal their phone numbers, serial numbers and locations.” The devices are commonly the size of a briefcase or as small as a cellphone.
A “dirtbox” or “DRT” box, manufactured by Digital Receiver Technology in Maryland, is a surveillance device that can be used for land-based or airborne cell phone data collection. A dirtbox has the ability to intercept and record digital voice data from thousands of cell phones at once, depending on the model, according to a leaked government cell phone surveillance catalogue obtained by The Intercept.
In their 2014 statement to KABC, Orange County sheriff’s officials said the Stingray purchase “will have to go before the Board of Supervisors before a contract can be issued.”
An online search this week of Board of Supervisors agenda items on the county website, going back to 2007, showed no contracts mentioning “Harris Corporation,” “Harris Corp.,” “Stingray,” “dirtbox,” or “DRT.”
The equipment on the Sheriff’s Department plane will include a mapping system and a high definition long-range camera with night vision capabilities, according to the staff report.
The Anaheim Police Department equipped its airplane with a dirtbox, according to internal records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) through a California Public Records Act request.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigators have used information from Anaheim’s cellphone surveillance equipment, according to a 2016 Orange County Register article.
The ACLU sued the Anaheim Police Department in 2015 over the use of cell phone surveillance technology the group said violated the privacy of American citizens.
Over 500 pages of records were turned over by Anaheim to the ACLU during the lawsuit. The records showed the city possessed at least three types of cell phone surveillance technology since 2009, according to a report from the ACLU of Northern California.
Law enforcement officials have said Stingray technology has played a major role in tracking terrorism threats and investigating criminals, and that Anaheim’s surveillance devices cannot intercept the content of calls or texts, according to a 2016 article in the Orange County Register.
The dirtbox device was used by other city police agencies in Orange County, according to the Anaheim documents obtained by the ACLU.
“Currently, every city in Orange County has benefited from the DRT device. Without an upgrade, Orange County as a whole would lose valuable knowledge necessary to investigate terrorism cases and solve crimes,” Anaheim Police Department investigator and project manager at the time, Ryan Tisdale, said in one of the documents while requesting an upgrade to the dirtbox purchased in the 2007 fiscal year.
The ACLU argued that Anaheim’s lack of transparency in regards to disclosing “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” related information to the public raised concerns for how the devices were actually used and whether or not the surveillance was an invasion of privacy.
“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 ACLU report states.
According to Braun, the Sheriff’s Department does not have plans for a public discussion regarding the purchase of the Airvan-8, aside from the opportunity for public comments during the June 26 meeting.
“There was plenty of time for the public to be aware of the agenda report,” Braun said. “The agenda staff report was posted for more than a week so there are ample opportunities for the public to know what is on the board’s agenda and speak during public comments if they choose to do so.”
The county’s regional narcotics task force is comprised of eight local law enforcement agencies in addition to the Sheriff’s Department, “one state and three federal agencies throughout Orange County, to include the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Army National Guard,” the airplane staff report says.
The task force often uses surveillance tools to target people involved in “high-level” drug trafficking or money laundering organizations, according to the staff report.
Since it started in 1986, the narcotics task force has seized 20,000 pounds of methamphetamine, 47,000 kilograms of cocaine, 1,100 pounds of heroin, 178,000 pounds of marijuana, and conducted over 2,400 arrests, the staff report states.
The report said “a large part” the task force’s success is due to the use of aircraft-based surveillance equipment.
“Without the advantage of aerial support, surveillance of these drug trafficking organizations would be extremely difficult with an increased likelihood of surveillance officers being exposed,” according to the staff report.
The existing plane, it says, has “outdated and aging” equipment after 37 years of use and raises safety concerns for officers.
“The [task force’s] current [surveillance] equipment consists of a handheld set of gyro-stabilized binoculars and a Garmin automobile GPS,” states the staff report.
There was no competitive bidding for airplane’s sole source contract, according to sheriff’s officials, because Air Bear Tactical Aircraft is the prime contractor for surveillance-equipped Airvan-8 planes in the Western United States.
“No other aircrafts were considered,” Braun said in an email. “This aircraft is designed for law enforcement.”
While supervisors have approved the purchase, Braun said the Sheriff’s Department must still complete a purchasing process on their end and that they will “try to move through that as quickly as possible.”
“The vendor tells us it takes approximately one year once the purchase is final for them to build the plane and deliver it to us,” Braun said.
Kassidy Dillon is a Voice of OC intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.