LAPD Joins Feds In Skirting Fourth Amendment With Cell Phone Tracking Devicesby Tim Cushing
Sep. 21, 2012
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About this time last year, details emerged on a new cell phone tracking device being used by the FBI to triangulate suspects' locations via their cell phone signals. One of these, the StingRay, mimics mobile phone towers, allowing the feds to triangulate someone's position using signal strength. It had been used successfully to bring Daniel Rigmaiden, wanted for fraud, into custody.
Rigmaiden (who is representing himself) was curious as to how he was located and a question on due process was posed by the judge:
In a February hearing, according to a transcript, Judge Campbell asked the prosecutor, "Were there warrants obtained in connection with the use of this device?"The FBI believes it can (and apparently, still does) track people using these devices without securing a warrant. Most discussion of the devices has been shut down by stating that revealing too much information would "harm law enforcement efforts by compromising future use of the equipment." The feds also believe that since the device only detects location, rather than eavesdropping, it's all cool, 4th Amendment rights or no.
So, while the jury is almost literally still out on the constitutionality of these devices, local law enforcement members have been availing themselves of them. LA Weekly, using recently obtained FOIA documents, discovered that the Los Angeles Police Department (along with police in Miami, Ft. Worth and Gilbert, AZ) has obtained and deployed the questionable StingRay. Not that the LAPD has much to say about its use, however:
LAPD refuses to discuss how it uses the powerful tool, perhaps copying the FBI's playbook, which argued in the Rigmaiden case that revealing too many details would cause serious harm to future investigations.Chances are the LAPD is deploying the devices without obtaining warrants, what with the FBI having set the precedent. With no court decision having been handed down yet dealing specifically with cell phone location trackers, law enforcement officers are pretty much free to explore the limits of this gray area. Refusing to discuss any details is par for the course for most enforcement agencies when asked about questionable means and technology, most of whom cite "serious harm" or "compromised investigations" as the reason for their obfuscation.
Speaking of dubious catch-all phrases, guess which one of the all-time "greats" was used to justify the purchase of these cell phone tracking systems:
Documents obtained from the Inspector General's office of the Department of Homeland Security reveal that LAPD bought two so-called "IMSI catchers" around 2006. At the time, LAPD had "recently purchased a cellphone tracking system (CPTS) for regional, terrorist-related investigations." The records mention StingRay and KingFish, brand names for IMSI devices made by Florida's Harris Corp.Oh, yes. "Terrorism." Citing this vague threat in the law enforcement arena tends to open wallets and close minds with incredible efficiency. But the LAPD's acquisition of the cell phone trackers went one step further, and completely cut out any last vestige of public accountability.
Separate documents show that, in April 2010, the Los Angeles City Council approved the purchase of $347,050 in additional "StingRay II" equipment — and paid for it with outside funds from the Los Angeles Police Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports police functions, over which the city has no control.The LAPD's refusal to discuss any aspect of these devices is "inconsistent with the democratic process," according to Peter Bibring of the ACLU, which makes sense, considering the use of the device itself seems to be "inconsistent with the democratic process." Seeing as the devices mimic cell phone towers, it would seem that the public might be very interested to know that the strongest signal in their neighborhood might actually be the LAPD doing a little tracking without a warrant or oversight.
Mobile devices connect to the wider network by using the antennae closest to them at the time. But when LAPD fires up a StingRay, it's often the most powerful signal in the area. Instantly, the department's spy equipment becomes the go-to "tower" for every cellphone and mobile device nearby — not just the phone carried by the suspect they're tracking.Maybe the feds and other smaller law enforcement agencies could just work to cut out the cell phone provider middleman and simply convert existing towers to "always-on" tracking devices. With enough subsidization, even those with the lowest income could avail themselves of 3G/4G service (depending on how many G-men are staffing the Flowers By Irene van), and the California Department of Corrections could up the ante by promising "More Bars in More Places."
Until a decision is handed down on the warrant question, it's safe to assume that law enforcement will be deploying these cell phone trackers as often as possible, using the "Beating Up on Crime/Terrorism" ends to justify the 4th Amendment-skirting means.