The U.S. government forces local law enforcement to keep quiet about a once-secret dragnet cellphone surveillance device, going so far as to order police and prosecutors not to comply with legal subpoenas and withhold evidence in criminal cases, according to the testimony of a Baltimore police department.
The testimony, heard in open court on Wednesday, offered a rare glimpse at just how far police departments are ordered to go to keep their use of StingRays and other cellphone spy gear a secret from the public.
StingRays are “cell site simulators” that police use in investigations to track the whereabouts of criminal suspects. When deployed, the suitcase-sized device forces all phones within a given area to connect to it instead of a legitimate communications tower. Computer software running on the StingRay allow police to retrieve valuable metadata downloaded from connected phones, including call logs and geolocation information.
The StingRay is part of a family of cellphone surveillance gear manufactured by the Florida-based Harris Corporation. It is part of a phone eavesdropping called RayFish that Harris markets to local law enforcement; other devices in the RayFish family are known by the nicknames KingFish and Hailstorm.
Wednesday’s testimony by Baltimore police officer Emmanuel Cabreja focused on the Hailstorm device, which is considered to be a more-powerful version of a StingRay. Cabreja’s testimony was delivered as part of a case surrounding a pair of carjacking and robbery suspects, both of whom plead guilty.
A defense attorney representing the suspects issued a subpoena requiring Cabreja to bring the Hailstorm device to court. Cabreja refused, citing a non-disclosure agreement signed between the Baltimore Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
As a condition of lease, the FBI requires local and state law enforcement agencies to sign such a non-disclosure advice requiring police to keep details of StingRays and Hailstorms a secret, even from prosecutors. A redacted document released months ago — and released in full earlier this week — revealed the FBI reserves the right to request prosecutors to drop criminal charges against suspects if such a device is used against them in order to keep details of the devices from the public.
The non-disclosure agreement also requires law enforcement agencies to inform the FBI upon receiving a public records request from journalists and citizens for information related to StingRays and Hailstorms. The notification is requested “in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to seek to prevent disclosure through appropriate channels,” the document said.
Last month, TheBlot Magazine published a heavily redacted copy of a single user manual submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2010 when the company sought to expand its authorization to sell StingRays and other devices to law enforcement on the basis of “emergency” circumstances. Prior to that, the devices were only authorized to be used in situations involving homeland security matters.
The document received by TheBlot came six months after a request made under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). An official with the FCC said a separate government group assisted the agency with the redactions found in the document. To date, the FCC has not responded to requests from TheBlot about who the outside agency was.
Other journalists and civil liberties groups have faced similar obstacles in their own attempts to obtain documents on Harris-manufactured surveillance equipment.
Last March, Sacramento television station KXTV aired a report claiming the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department was in possession of StingRay equipment after investigative producer Michael Bott obtained documents from a San Francisco-area law enforcement agency that cited the sheriff’s department with acting as an advisor to the technology. The sheriff’s department initially told KXTV it had no documents on StingRays, only to admit months later that it had a cell site simulator device.
Last month, a New York Supreme Court judge ordered the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department to release hundreds of documents related to that agency’s use of a StingRay device. The documents, published by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) on Tuesday, revealed the sheriff’s department used the cell site simulator nearly four dozen times between May 2010 and October 2014. Police obtained a warrant just once before using the device, the NYCLU noted.
Although official numbers are often hard to pin down because of the intense secrecy surrounding the devices, documents obtained by other groups point to StingRay use a few dozen times to less than a few hundred times a year by agencies across the country. That number is significantly lower than the amount of times the Baltimore Police Department used its cellphone surveillance gear, according to Cabreja’s testimony on Wednesday. Cabreja said Baltimore police used a Hailstorm around 4,300 times since 2007.
It is unclear how often the device was used to successfully apprehend suspects, and if that use resulted in convictions, plea agreements or withdrawn charges.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.