Civil Liberties

LAPD Makes Routine Use of Indiscriminate 'Anti-Terrorism' Surveillance


The other day I wrote of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's efforts to make sure that a Massachusetts resident "accidentally" tracked when he was a passenger in a car to which a GPS device had been attached would be recognized as having legal standing to challenge the police surveillance. The EFF warns that such collateral subjects of official scrutiny are likely to become more common as far-ranging snooping tools are put to greater use. Now, Reason 24/7 tells us that the Los Angeles Police Department makes routine use of a technology that lets it determine the position of every cell phone within its wide reach.

From the L.A. Weekly:

A secretive cellphone spy device known as StingRay, intended to fight terrorism, was used in far more routine LAPD criminal investigations 21 times in a four-month period during 2012, apparently without the courts' knowledge that the technology probes the lives of non-suspects who happen to be in the same neighborhood as suspected terrorists.

According to records released to the First Amendment Coalition under the California Public Records Act, StingRay, which allows police to track mobile phones in real time, was tapped for more than 13 percent of the 155 "cellular phone investigation cases" that Los Angeles police conducted between June and September last year.

"Stingray" is actually a brand name that has stuck as a generic monicker for International Mobile Subscriber Identity locators. These devices masquerade as cell towers to ping all of the mobile devices on a given network within their range, so long as they're turned on, and so reveal their location.

The LAPD is being vague about the legal guidelines under which it uses stingrays. That's no surprise, since the Wall Street Journal reported in 2011 that the FBI and Department of Justice insist the devices don't require search warrants. Los Angeles police officials probably want to keep the technology subject to as loose a standard as possible. To do that, the LAPD is apparently presenting stingrays to judges as old-fashioned "pen register/trap and trace" long used to identify individual callers on landlines. The occasional jurist might raise an eyebrow (we can hope) upon discovering that stingrays are a tad more powerful.

Powerful, indiscriminate surveillance technology is coming soon to a law-enforcement agency near you! Or it's already there.