Civil rights groups filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday, alleging that the Baltimore Police Department's (BPD) unlicensed use of the controversial cell phone surveillance tool known as Stingray violates the law through racial discrimination and willful interference with cell phone calls.
The complaint, filed by the Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, and the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, calls on the FCC to "address harms caused by BPD's unauthorized use" of Stingrays, also known as cell site (C.S.) simulators.
"The FCC has legal obligations to protect against harmful interference caused by unauthorized transmissions on licensed spectrum, to manage spectrum to promote the safety of life and property, to ensure availability of emergency calling services, and to strive to make communications networks available to the public without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex," the plaintiffs write.
Stingrays operate by mimicking cell phone towers, tricking nearby devices into communicating with them, which allows law enforcement agents to spy on communications between citizens. Recent exposés have shown that departments across the country often used the technology as a "first resort" investigative tool, including in non-violent crimes. They have also been deployed at recent protests against police brutality.
Baltimore police admitted in court last year that they had used Stingrays thousands of times during routine investigations and were required to withhold information about the devices through an agreement with the Department of Justice.
The Baltimore Sun reports:
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The groups argue that surveillance using the devices also undermines people's free speech rights and describe the use of Stingrays as an electronic form of the intrusive police practices described in the scathing Justice Department report on the police department's pattern of civil rights violations.
"The problem of radicalized surveillance is particularly pronounced in Baltimore, where BPD's racially biased policing is clearly reflected in its racially biased deployment of [cell site] simulators," the groups say in the complaint.
Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told the Sun there is strong evidence that the use of Stingrays interferes with cell phone communications. But because the devices are concealed from the public, it is difficult for the average mobile phone user to determine what's happening with their service.
"If you can't make calls, it's not like your phone is going to pop up with a message saying sorry the Baltimore PD is using a Stingray right now," he said. "It just doesn't work."
And, the complaint adds, "these disruptions of the cellphone network—including of emergency calls—disproportionately harm the residents of Baltimore's Black neighborhoods."
An FCC spokesperson told the Sun that the "commission expects state and local law enforcement to work through the appropriate legal processes to use these devices."