Technology

Cops Must Promise to Keep Secrets for FBI, FCC Phone Snooping Tech

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Reezy MD, Foter

Cops around the country have been using a device called a surveillance device called a "StingRay" to locate and monitor cellphones. The tool is about suitcase-sized and casts a wide net into which countless people's metadata is caught. Not much else is known about them. That's exactly how cops want it, and that's how the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) want it, too, newly released documents confirm.

Some background: Unbeknownst to just about everybody (city council, county prosecutors, and superior judges included), the Tacoma, Washington Police Department (TPD) has for years been using the surveillance tool. Court cases have revealed that other local law enforcement agencies sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with Harris Corp., which produces StingRays, but federal agencies' involvement has been hazier

MuckRock, a site that focuses on freedom of information requests, got its hands on some paperwork, and highlights the fact that "the FBI received notification from Harris that TPD was interested in a StingRay, [which] reveals a surprising level of coordination between a private corporation and a federal law enforcement agency. The agreement… makes clear that completing the NDA is compulsory by order of the FCC" and FBI. Four out six pages that MuckRock received were completely censored, but "the document's opening paragraph cements details previously only guessed at.":

Documents released in August referred to a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) between Tacoma and the Justice Department, but the agreement itself was not released until last Friday. The Tacoma document provides key insight into the close cooperation among the FBI, Harris Corporation and the Federal Communications Commission to bar StingRay details from public release.  

Tacoma police chief Donald Ramsdell signed the NDA on January 3, 2013, along with special agent Laura Laughlin of the FBI's Seattle field office and four Tacoma officers authorized to operate the StingRay system.

The document indicates that every law enforcement agency that gets an FBI StingRay has to sign the same NDA the Tacoma cops signed. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has an ongoing StingRay case in Arizona, writes, "We have seen the FBI pressure local law enforcement agencies to withhold basic information about purchase and use of Stingrays before, but now we have greater insight into how it does so." And, luckily, an "FBI agent's declaration in the Arizona case quotes extensively from the nondisclosure agreement, thus filling in some of the text blacked out in the Tacoma document."

"It's not clear to me why the FCC would have an interest in requiring law enforcement agencies to sign NDA's with the FBI, unless they were concerned that the spread of this technology could harm users of American communications networks," suggests Alan Butler of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The devices are problematic for a few reasons. Cops often justify that they use them for anti-terror activity, but don't actually, and since the agencies are bound to their NDAs, they use them without the approval of individual search warrant. As such, the Electronic Frontier Foundation describes StingRays as "an unconstitutional, all-you-can-eat data buffet."