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Five Things to Know About Police Cell-Phone Spying

While much remains a mystery, some details are now public. A pending lawsuit over the San Diego Police Department’s use of “StingRay” technology could shake more details loose.

San Diego cops have their ear on you — maybe. You’re not allowed to know what they’re doing, or not doing, with top-secret cell-phone spying equipment.

But the wall of silence is crumbling. A lawsuit is pending over the San Diego Police Department’s use of “StingRay” technology, and journalists are gaining more insight into exactly what’s going on. Here are five things to know about cell phone surveillance by cops.

This isn’t your father’s cell phone surveillance.

Anyone who’s watched true-crime shows like “Forensic Files” or listened to the “Serial” podcast knows that cops can get cell phone location data and figure out — at least to some extent — where users were and when. Cops have been relying on this kind of technology at least since cell phones become popular in the late 1990s.

This kind of spying can be accomplished via something called a “Tower Dump,” according to USA Today: Cops can examine phone company data to figure out which cell phones were near specific cell towers at specific times. Then they could try to get more detailed information about individual phones.

The StingRay technology, by contrast, is “live”: It grabs signals from the airwaves in real time and provides cops with data about all cell phones that transmit in the area by tricking the phones into thinking the StingRay device is a cell tower.

The technology could potentially be used to track people as they move around with their cell phones, even inside private buildings. A device hidden in, say, a police van presumably would only be able to track cell phones in a small area, but U.S. marshals have reportedly deployed the technology in small planes to greatly expand the areas that can be monitored. At least five metro areas have been targeted, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Few protections limit cell spying.

“In most states, police can get many kinds of cell phone data without obtaining a warrant, which they’d need to search someone’s house or car,” USA Today reports.

Several civil liberties groups question the freedom of law enforcement agencies to spy on citizens without providing information to the public about what they’re doing.

“It’s essentially a form of mass surveillance, and that’s extremely troubling, and the public has the right to know if that is how, in fact, the San Diego Police Department is employing this technology,” local ACLU official David Loy told the U-T.

The FBI has told U.S. senators that law enforcement doesn’t need warrants to use the surveillance devices in public.

States can set up their own laws regarding local law enforcement, and nine states have reportedly limited live cell phone spying without a warrant. (California is not one of them.) It’s a complicated legal issue because people have fewer privacy rights regarding surveillance when they’re in public.

Individual cell phones are different: Cops can’t go digging around for information in your phone without permission. In a case from San Diego, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled last year that cops can’t search data on cell phones without a warrant.

Several types of cell phone spying equipment exist.

“StingRay” devices have gotten the lion’s share of attention in recent months. The Harris Corporation, the company that makes them, has refused to give out details about the devices and warns that prosecutors could go after anyone who dares to spread certain information without permission.

In 2013, the news site ArsTechnica reported on what the StingRay is: “It’s a box-shaped portable device … that gathers information from phones by sending out a signal that tricks them into connecting to it. … The authorities can then hone in on specific phones of interest to monitor the location of the user in real time or use the spy tool to log a record of all phones in a targeted area at a particular time.” StingRays can also eavesdrop on conversations, ArsTechnica says. In 2013, they cost $68,479 or $134,952, depending on the version.

ArsTechnica says there are plenty of other devices that do similar things, including another portable device called Gossamer — also manufactured by Harris Corporation — that cost $19,696. The FBI spent more than $1.3 million on the technology in the 2000s.

Several American police departments, meanwhile, have bought “Hailstorm” systems from Harris that could cost as much as $169,602. It’s not clear what they do, although they may be a form of upgrade. A sheriff’s official in Michigan told the Detroit News last year that “it’s not a tool to spy on people, unequivocally.” But if that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine why its purpose would be secretive.

Public records confirm that the San Diego Police Department spent $33,000 “on the possession or use” of StingRay technology, U-T San Diego reports, and the department sought $738,000 in grant money for it in 2009. It’s not clear what the department bought, how it uses it or why the amount is so low compared with the cost of the technology.

You may be able to detect tracking.

An app for Android phones released last week called “SnoopSnitch” promises to detect whether your phone is being tracked by StingRay-style cell phone surveillance technology. But, as Slate notes, they won’t prevent the tracking from taking place. You’ll need to turn off your cell phone to do that, and it might help to remove the battery too. Occupy.com, which warned about StingRay surveillance of Occupy protesters, offers some other strategies, such as “privacy cases.”

A new lawsuit could shake loose San Diego info.

Last month, the First Amendment Coalition — a California nonprofit devoted to free speech and open government — sued the San Diego Police Department and demanded more information about its use of cell phone surveillance technology.

The suit claims that SDPD has denied journalists’ requests for information about how it uses StingRay devices, and asks the court to compel the city and the police “to disclose documents containing information about their possession and use of International Mobile Subscriber Identity Catchers.”

Potentially, the lawsuit could turn up details about how the technology is assisting cops. According to Inewsource, the First Amendment Coalition learned that “the Los Angeles Police Department used these devices 21 times in a four-month period in 2012 to aid in homicide, kidnapping, suicide, rape, human trafficking, robbery, fugitive and narcotic cases.”

Court records indicate that no date has been set for legal proceedings in the lawsuit, which was filed on Dec. 15. The city of San Diego challenged the judge assigned to the case, Richard E. L. Strauss, and the Superior Court transferred the case to Judge Judith Hayes.

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