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Police Departments Are Buying Cell Data-Scooping Tech They Can’t Talk About

Law enforcement agencies are using a new surveillance device, but can only purchase it by signing an NDA.

Police Departments Are Buying Cell Data-Scooping Tech They Can’t Talk About
[Photo: Flickr user David]

Certain corners of the Internet have been up in arms around the StingRay police device–allegedly a cell-tower-in-a-van that can scoop up calls, texts, and phone data for police use. But that’s all we know: To buy the device, police departments must sign a nondisclosure agreement to refrain from sharing any of its operational details, according to The New York Times.

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The FBI oversees these nondisclosure agreements, sometimes including the Harris Corporation, a defense contractor which builds the devices, says The New York Times. The FBI’s defense of the NDA’s is unsurprising: If they revealed the StingRay’s limits to the public, then criminals and terrorists could circumvent the device. But police departments still have to justify the cost of this unknown device’s unknown limits to municipal budget boards, who might understandably recoil at the idea of shelling out funds for a mystery device. This happened just a few weeks ago, according to The New York Times, when a Santa Clara County sheriff made a request for the device:

“So, just to be clear,” Joe Simitian, a county supervisor, said, “we are being asked to spend $500,000 of taxpayers’ money and $42,000 a year thereafter for a product for the name brand which we are not sure of, a product we have not seen, a demonstration we don’t have, and we have a nondisclosure requirement as a precondition. You want us to vote and spend money,” he continued, but “you can’t tell us more about it.”

Just like with the NSA’s phone-data scooping, privacy advocates are concerned about the StingRay device (generically known as a “cell site simulator”) because it isn’t limited to intercepting data from the target phone–it can scan all the cell phones in the area it’s being used, The New York Times reports. An FBI spokesman told The Times that the agency “does not keep repositories of cell tower data for any purpose other than in connection with a specific investigation.”

Linda Lye, a lawyer for the Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the Justice Department in 2013 for more information on the device. The result: The government said it had asked the courts to allow the technology to capture content, not just identify subscriber location, says The New York Times. Thanks to the NDA requirement, it’s unclear how broadly the StingRay device is being utilized, though news reports have noted that local and state police departments from L.A. to Wisconsin to New York have used the device–and have been for years.

[via The New York Times]

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