BY PETER SCHEER–The records published below–released to the First Amendment Coalition by the Los Angeles Police Department–confirm LAPD’s use, in criminal investigations, of a controversial technology for tracking cell phones.
Devices using this technology, “International Mobile Subscriber Identity” locators, operate by mimicking a cellphone tower, causing cell phones that are within range to connect to the device. Their use raises privacy and free speech concerns because they obtain information, not only about a specific phone belonging to a suspect whom police are legitimately targeting, but also about the cell phones of potentially hundreds of innocent persons who happen to be in the vicinity of the devices.
The particular device used by the LAPD is called “Stingray.” An article by Jon Campbell in LA Weekly, “LAPD Spied on 21 Using StingRay Anti-Terrorism Tool,” describes the records obtained by FAC under the California Public Records Act. The records themselves, together with FAC’s record request, can be viewed below as a PDF file. The Wall Street Journal last September published a useful article explaining how Stingray devices work.
The Stingray devices were reportedly acquired by LAPD, using a federal Homeland Security grant, for counter-terrorism investigations following the 911 terrorist attacks. However, the records obtained by FAC indicate the tracking technology is now used for more routine criminal investigations. Of 155 cellphone investigations conducted by LAPD during a four-month period in 2012, twenty-one involved use of the Stingray, according to the LAPD records.
Although the records indicate that LAPD has obtained search warrants or other judicial authorization for deployments of the Stingray, it is not clear whether the judges or magistrates are given complete or accurate information about the scope of the electronic “searches” they are approving. This issue has figured prominently in a criminal prosecution in federal court in Texas involving FBI use of a Stingray.
For more information, contact FAC’s executive director Peter Scheer.