Orange County sheriff officials plan to upgrade their computer system for wiretapping drug and money laundering phone calls and internet connections, with $161,000 in new equipment and software from Nebraska-based Pen-Link Ltd.
The purchase is up for approval Tuesday by the county Board of Supervisors, which has approved recent Sheriff’s Department requests for surveillance equipment unanimously and without discussion.
The wiretapping system allows law enforcement to monitor, store, and analyze phone conversations and internet communications for investigations of major drug trafficking and money laundering operations, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
It is capable of capturing “massive amounts of social media and internet communication data,” as well as tracking the location of targeted cell phones, according to Pen-Link. The intercepted calls and internet traffic can be searched, sorted and analyzed, the company says.
In their staff report, sheriff officials said the Pen-Link system is used by the Regional Narcotics Suppression Program, a task force of multiple law enforcement agencies and headed up by the OC Sheriff’s Department, which investigates and prosecutes “subjects involved in large scale narcotics trafficking and money laundering.”
Earlier this year, sheriff officials got approval to buy a $3.6 million surveillance plane they said would be used by the task force.
Pen-Link is one of a number of companies that help law enforcement conduct wiretaps and analyze the results.
Civil liberties advocates have questioned whether third-party services like Pen-Link open up a potential door to law enforcement conducting wiretaps without court oversight.
In response to questions Friday from Voice of OC, sheriff officials on Monday initially did not directly say if they can conduct wiretapping through the Pen-Link system without court orders.
But after follow-up questions, a sheriff spokeswoman said court orders are required, and that the Sheriff’s Department does not conduct any wiretapping without one.
The Pen-Link system “cannot access a phone line without authorization from the telephone company, which requires a court order,” said Carrie Braun, the chief spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department.
The court order must be signed and approved by the DA, sheriff, and a judge in Orange County, she said. It is then “given to the phone company’s legal department. Once approved from their legal end, the information or line is sent to the agency requesting the wiretap.”
Sheriff officials declined to disclose the total number of phone calls and internet connections they’ve wiretapped in recent years, nor the number of wiretapping orders they requested and how many were approved by the courts.
In the 1980s, Orange County taxpayers paid $375,000 to settle a lawsuit by a former judge and a former sheriff candidate alleging then-Sheriff Brad Gates had sheriff officials surveil his political opponents.
In federal court testimony, then-Sheriff’s Lt. Randall Blair, a member of Gates’ intelligence unit, testified “he remembered listening in a parked car while a hidden transmitter broadcast what one of Gates’ political opponents was saying during a college lecture.”
“The tape-recording of that lecture was found in a deputy sheriff’s garage in 1987, and soon afterward the county paid a $375,000 out-of-court settlement to the lecturer [and former Gates election opponent], George Wright, and another Gates political opponent, former Municipal Judge Bobby D. Youngblood,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
Wiretapping technology has become more and more sophisticated in recent years, while consumer concerns about their digital privacy have also become prominent.
One system known as Pegasus, which is produced by the Israeli firm NSO Group, lets governments hack into iPhones and other encrypted smart phones and listen in on conversations, download the contents of the phone and use the phone’s microphone and camera for surveillance.
The Mexican federal government purchased the Pegasus software, which has been used to hack the phones of journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers, including the son of a Mexican journalist who was living in the U.S. at the time.
Two of the largest investment firms in the United States, Goldman Sachs and the Blackstone Group, are part-owners of the company that has a controlling ownership stake in the NSO Group.
In the U.S., federal laws known as Title III of the Wiretap Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, make it illegal for federal, state and local law enforcement to wiretap oral and electronic communications without a court order.
After the San Bernardino terrorist attack in December 2015, the FBI and Apple got into a high-profile legal battle over whether cell phone manufacturers should be required to unlock encrypted phones.
The iPhone of one of the dead terrorists was locked with encryption that Apple said it could not unlock, unless it was ordered to make its engineers create a version of the phone’s operating system that could be unlocked even with the encryption.
Law enforcement argued it needed to examine the phone’s contents to confirm whether there was a third gunman in the attack. In fighting the FBI’s court order, Apple said the FBI had no way to ensure the tool would stay in the U.S. government’s hands.
Ultimately, the FBI ended its legal battle when it was able to get into the phone through an unspecified “third party,” which produced a tool the FBI purchased for a reported $1.3 million.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.