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Paul Merrell

Civil Rights Coalition files FCC Complaint Against Baltimore Police Department for Ille... - 0 views

  • This week the Center for Media Justice, ColorOfChange.org, and New America’s Open Technology Institute filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission alleging the Baltimore police are violating the federal Communications Act by using cell site simulators, also known as Stingrays, that disrupt cellphone calls and interfere with the cellular network—and are doing so in a way that has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Stingrays operate by mimicking a cell tower and directing all cellphones in a given area to route communications through the Stingray instead of the nearby tower. They are especially pernicious surveillance tools because they collect information on every single phone in a given area—not just the suspect’s phone—this means they allow the police to conduct indiscriminate, dragnet searches. They are also able to locate people inside traditionally-protected private spaces like homes, doctors’ offices, or places of worship. Stingrays can also be configured to capture the content of communications. Because Stingrays operate on the same spectrum as cellular networks but are not actually transmitting communications the way a cell tower would, they interfere with cell phone communications within as much as a 500 meter radius of the device (Baltimore’s devices may be limited to 200 meters). This means that any important phone call placed or text message sent within that radius may not get through. As the complaint notes, “[d]epending on the nature of an emergency, it may be urgently necessary for a caller to reach, for example, a parent or child, doctor, psychiatrist, school, hospital, poison control center, or suicide prevention hotline.” But these and even 911 calls could be blocked.
  • The Baltimore Police Department could be among the most prolific users of cell site simulator technology in the country. A Baltimore detective testified last year that the BPD used Stingrays 4,300 times between 2007 and 2015. Like other law enforcement agencies, Baltimore has used its devices for major and minor crimes—everything from trying to locate a man who had kidnapped two small children to trying to find another man who took his wife’s cellphone during an argument (and later returned it). According to logs obtained by USA Today, the Baltimore PD also used its Stingrays to locate witnesses, to investigate unarmed robberies, and for mysterious “other” purposes. And like other law enforcement agencies, the Baltimore PD has regularly withheld information about Stingrays from defense attorneys, judges, and the public. Moreover, according to the FCC complaint, the Baltimore PD’s use of Stingrays disproportionately impacts African American communities. Coming on the heels of a scathing Department of Justice report finding “BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law,” this may not be surprising, but it still should be shocking. The DOJ’s investigation found that BPD not only regularly makes unconstitutional stops and arrests and uses excessive force within African-American communities but also retaliates against people for constitutionally protected expression, and uses enforcement strategies that produce “severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans.”
  • Adding Stingrays to this mix means that these same communities are subject to more surveillance that chills speech and are less able to make 911 and other emergency calls than communities where the police aren’t regularly using Stingrays. A map included in the FCC complaint shows exactly how this is impacting Baltimore’s African-American communities. It plots hundreds of addresses where USA Today discovered BPD was using Stingrays over a map of Baltimore’s black population based on 2010 Census data included in the DOJ’s recent report:
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  • The Communications Act gives the FCC the authority to regulate radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable communications in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. This includes being responsible for protecting cellphone networks from disruption and ensuring that emergency calls can be completed under any circumstances. And it requires the FCC to ensure that access to networks is available “to all people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.” Considering that the spectrum law enforcement is utilizing without permission is public property leased to private companies for the purpose of providing them next generation wireless communications, it goes without saying that the FCC has a duty to act.
  • But we should not assume that the Baltimore Police Department is an outlier—EFF has found that law enforcement has been secretly using stingrays for years and across the country. No community should have to speculate as to whether such a powerful surveillance technology is being used on its residents. Thus, we also ask the FCC to engage in a rule-making proceeding that addresses not only the problem of harmful interference but also the duty of every police department to use Stingrays in a constitutional way, and to publicly disclose—not hide—the facts around acquisition and use of this powerful wireless surveillance technology.  Anyone can support the complaint by tweeting at FCC Commissioners or by signing the petitions hosted by Color of Change or MAG-Net.
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    An important test case on the constitutionality of stingray mobile device surveillance.
Paul Merrell

US pushing local cops to stay mum on surveillance - Yahoo News - 0 views

  • WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration has been quietly advising local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology they are using to sweep up basic cellphone data from entire neighborhoods, The Associated Press has learned. Citing security reasons, the U.S. has intervened in routine state public records cases and criminal trials regarding use of the technology. This has resulted in police departments withholding materials or heavily censoring documents in rare instances when they disclose any about the purchase and use of such powerful surveillance equipment. Federal involvement in local open records proceedings is unusual. It comes at a time when President Barack Obama has said he welcomes a debate on government surveillance and called for more transparency about spying in the wake of disclosures about classified federal surveillance programs.
  • One well-known type of this surveillance equipment is known as a Stingray, an innovative way for law enforcement to track cellphones used by suspects and gather evidence. The equipment tricks cellphones into identifying some of their owners' account information, like a unique subscriber number, and transmitting data to police as if it were a phone company's tower. That allows police to obtain cellphone information without having to ask for help from service providers, such as Verizon or AT&T, and can locate a phone without the user even making a call or sending a text message. But without more details about how the technology works and under what circumstances it's used, it's unclear whether the technology might violate a person's constitutional rights or whether it's a good investment of taxpayer dollars. Interviews, court records and public-records requests show the Obama administration is asking agencies to withhold common information about the equipment, such as how the technology is used and how to turn it on. That pushback has come in the form of FBI affidavits and consultation in local criminal cases.
  • "These extreme secrecy efforts are in relation to very controversial, local government surveillance practices using highly invasive technology," said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has fought for the release of these types of records. "If public participation means anything, people should have the facts about what the government is doing to them." Harris Corp., a key manufacturer of this equipment, built a secrecy element into its authorization agreement with the Federal Communications Commission in 2011. That authorization has an unusual requirement: that local law enforcement "coordinate with the FBI the acquisition and use of the equipment." Companies like Harris need FCC authorization in order to sell wireless equipment that could interfere with radio frequencies. A spokesman from Harris Corp. said the company will not discuss its products for the Defense Department and law enforcement agencies, although public filings showed government sales of communications systems such as the Stingray accounted for nearly one-third of its $5 billion in revenue. "As a government contractor, our solutions are regulated and their use is restricted," spokesman Jim Burke said.
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  • Local police agencies have been denying access to records about this surveillance equipment under state public records laws. Agencies in San Diego, Chicago and Oakland County, Michigan, for instance, declined to tell the AP what devices they purchased, how much they cost and with whom they shared information. San Diego police released a heavily censored purchasing document. Oakland officials said police-secrecy exemptions and attorney-client privilege keep their hands tied. It was unclear whether the Obama administration interfered in the AP requests. "It's troubling to think the FBI can just trump the state's open records law," said Ginger McCall, director of the open government project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. McCall suspects the surveillance would not pass constitutional muster. "The vast amount of information it sweeps in is totally irrelevant to the investigation," she said.
  • A court case challenging the public release of information from the Tucson Police Department includes an affidavit from an FBI special agent, Bradley Morrison, who said the disclosure would "result in the FBI's inability to protect the public from terrorism and other criminal activity because through public disclosures, this technology has been rendered essentially useless for future investigations." Morrison said revealing any information about the technology would violate a federal homeland security law about information-sharing and arms-control laws — legal arguments that that outside lawyers and transparency experts said are specious and don't comport with court cases on the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. The FBI did not answer questions about its role in states' open records proceedings.
  • But a former Justice Department official said the federal government should be making this argument in federal court, not a state level where different public records laws apply. "The federal government appears to be attempting to assert a federal interest in the information being sought, but it's going about it the wrong way," said Dan Metcalfe, the former director of the Justice Department's office of information and privacy. Currently Metcalfe is the executive director of American University's law school Collaboration on Government Secrecy project. A criminal case in Tallahassee cites the same homeland security laws in Morrison's affidavit, court records show, and prosecutors told the court they consulted with the FBI to keep portions of a transcript sealed. That transcript, released earlier this month, revealed that Stingrays "force" cellphones to register their location and identifying information with the police device and enables officers to track calls whenever the phone is on.
  • One law enforcement official familiar with the Tucson lawsuit, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak about internal discussions, said federal lawyers told Tucson police they couldn't hand over a PowerPoint presentation made by local officers about how to operate the Stingray device. Federal officials forwarded Morrison's affidavit for use in the Tucson police department's reply to the lawsuit, rather than requesting the case be moved to federal court. In Sarasota, Florida, the U.S. Marshals Service confiscated local records on the use of the surveillance equipment, removing the documents from the reach of Florida's expansive open-records law after the ACLU asked under Florida law to see the documents. The ACLU has asked a judge to intervene. The Marshals Service said it deputized the officer as a federal agent and therefore the records weren't accessible under Florida law.
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    The Florida case is particularly interesting because Florida is within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has just ruled that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant from a court before using equipment to determine a cell phone's location.  
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