The Baltimore Police Department used secretive tracking technology known as "Stingray" for surveillance purposes thousands of times since 2007 and is forced through an agreement with the FBI to withhold information about it.
The revelation was made Wednesday in court by a detective with department's Advanced Technical Team, Emmanuel Cabreja. He was testifying regarding a carjacking and robbery case in which the technology had been used.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has called Stingray "an unconstitutional, all-you-can-eat data buffet," and describes how the technology works in this way:
The Stingray is a brand name of an IMSI catcher [or International Mobile Subscriber Identity locator] targeted and sold to law enforcement. A Stingray works by masquerading as a cell phone tower—to which your mobile phone sends signals to every 7 to 15 seconds whether you are on a call or not— and tricks your phone into connecting to it. As a result, the government can figure out who, when and to where you are calling, the precise location of every device within the range, and with some devices, even capture the content of your conversations.
The American Civil Liberties Union notes: "When used to track a suspect's cell phone, they also gather information about the phones of countless bystanders who happen to be nearby."
Cabreja testified that the BPD has the Hailstorm version of the tracking device, and that it has used it 4,300 times since 2007.
Also presented in court was a copy of a non-disclosure agreement between the BPD and FBI, posted here by The Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton, which states that public disclosure of Stingray "could result in the FBI's inability to protect itself from terrorism and other criminal activity." EFF, however, has cautioned: "The government uses 'terrorism' as a catalyst to gain some powerful new surveillance tool or ability, and then turns around and uses it on ordinary citizens, severely infringing on their civil liberties in the process."
Among eight conditions listed in agreement for use of technology are that the BPD cannot disclose information about it "to any other law enforcement or government agency without the prior written approval of the FBI." It further states that neither the BPD nor the State's Attorney for Baltimore City can give information about the technology in court hearings without such FBI approval, and that the BPD must notify the FBI if it receives a Freedom of Information Act request regarding Stingray. The FBI may also seek dismissal of a court case if using Stingray information "would potentially or actually compromise the equipment/technology."
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Cabreja took notes with him to court that he said came from a discussion last week in which the FBI coached him on what to say in court.
The talking points included: "Data is not retained."
"Does (the document) instruct you to withhold evidence from the state's attorney and the circuit court of Baltimore city, even if upon order to produce?" the Associated Press reports defense attorney Joshua Insley as asking Cabreja.
"Yes," the detective responded.
BPD's use of Stingray and the non-disclosure agreement is far from unusual, however, The ACLU has exposed the device's use in places like New York and Florida, and MuckRock has revealed similar types of FBI agreements. In a tweet on Thrusday, Fenton also notes a sign of the relationship between makers of the technology and the BPD:
How much does BPD love this device? The head of their unit that uses Stingray retired and now works for the manufacturer— Justin Fenton (@justin_fenton) April 9, 2015
Efforts to keep information about Stingray's use from the public eye, Nathan Freed Wessler, Staff Attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, wrote last year, "only functions to subvert our right to keep tabs on what our government is up to. This kind of secrecy allows the government to keep constitutional violations hidden in the shadows."