In a victorious decision for the ACLU, a Florida Judge has forced the state police to release documents describing its use of stingray cell phone trackers.
The emergency motion and subsequent decision came as a result of a court case in Tallahassee, Florida where police testified using stingray technology to track a cell phone inside a suspect’s apartment without obtaining the necessary warrant. The ACLU then tried to obtain court papers but were thwarted by federal marshals seeking to keep public papers accessible to the public, as required by law.
According to court rules and the 1st Amendment, the law “requires judges to retain copies of judicial records and to make them available to the public, but the court (and the detective) completely flouted those requirements ” when “the local police allowed the records to disappear by letting the U.S. Marshals drive down from their office in Tampa, seize the physical files, and move them to an unknown location. We’ve seen our fair share of federal government attempts to keep records about stingrays secret, but we’ve never seen an actual physical raid on state records in order to conceal them from public view.”
Now, the document in question has been released to the public, along with some detailed information about the use of stingrays by law enforcement. Most of this has been suspected, but officially, we now know:
Stingrays “emulate a cellphone tower” and “force” cell phones to register their location and identifying information with the stingray instead of with real cell towers in the area.
Stingrays can track cell phones whenever the phones are turned on, not just when they are making or receiving calls.
Stingrays force cell phones in range to transmit information back “at full signal, consuming battery faster.” Is your phone losing battery power particularly quickly today? Maybe the cops are using a stingray nearby.
When in use, stingrays are “evaluating all the [cell phone] handsets in the area” in order to search for the suspect’s phone. That means that large numbers of innocent bystanders’ location and phone information is captured.
In this case, police used two versions of the stingray — one mounted on a police vehicle, and the other carried by hand. Police drove through the area using the vehicle-based device until they found the apartment complex in which the target phone was located, and then they walked around with the handheld device and stood “at every door and every window in that complex” until they figured out which apartment the phone was located in. In other words, police were lurking outside people’s windows and sending powerful electronic signals into their private homes in order to collect information from within.
The Tallahassee detective testifying in the hearing estimated that, between spring of 2007 and August of 2010, the Tallahassee Police had used stingrays approximately “200 or more times.”
Photo Credit: Stingray City by Barry Peters (cropped)