Before the events of 9/11, surveillance practices were fairly limited in scope for local police departments. Warrants would be obtained for phone logs, wiretaps and searches; while some departments abused those privileges, most complied with federal and state laws.
Now, however, a new type of surveillance has arisen and police departments today are loath to let the public in on their practices. Funded by grants from the Department of Homeland Security, local law enforcement agencies are using equipment that the average citizens not only does not know about, but is actually prevented from knowing about by nondisclosure agreements and federal intervention.
Stingray: no disclosure, no records available, paid for by taxpayer money
In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union asked to see records of surveillance made possible by a device called Stingray. Developed by Harris Corporation of Melbourne, Fla., the Stingray is fast becoming one of the most popular products in the $5 billion company’s arsenal. But as Jessica Price, an ACLU attorney, told the Orange County Register, “This is actually more invasive than (police) attaching GPS to someone’s car. In this case, you’re attaching GPS to everyone’s car.”
The Stingray simulates a cell phone tower and tricks other mobile devices into connecting with them; it can then identify the device ID and traffic data, allowing police to triangulate on the signal much easier than before. When the ACLU filed its request, the Sarasota police were willing to turn over the records until the U.S. Marshals Service stepped in, seized the records and declared they owned the files because they had deputized a detective working on the case.
In fact, the Tallahassee police department admitted in court proceedings that at least 200 times since 2010, a Stingray had been used without informing a court because Harris made the police department sign a non-disclosure agreement. But this is not unusual; when USA TODAY asked Harris about its system in 2013, it referred them to the individual police agencies—which had also signed non-disclosure agreements. Currently, the ACLU is suing both the Anaheim police department and the Sacramento County sheriff’s department to obtain records.
Federal money, but no public oversight
These devices are not cheap. The Long Beach police department paid $489,000 for its Stingray as part of its Port Security Grant program. But the Stingray is not the only purchase possible with federal grant money.
In 2014, Oakland signed a contract with Science Applications International Corporation to build its new Domain Awareness Center for $10.2 million in federal grant money, hoping to collate live data streams from traffic cameras, police license plate readers, gunshot detectors and other sources across Oakland. However, the company also paid $500 million in penalties to avoid federal prosecution for illegal kickbacks. Eventually, Oakland scaled down the project to the port area but port officials decided not to pay for staffing—meaning, oddly, that the facility is finished, but no one will watch the feeds.
Public partnerships with private surveillance firms, funded by federal grants, are becoming commonplace. Only continued vigilance by the public will ensure full disclosure; as Linda Lye of the ACLU told CNN, when total surveillance can be done with the press of a button because it is all at someone’s fingertips, it creates a situation ripe for abuse.