FAC sues San Diego PD for records on controversial cell phone surveillance technology

The First Amendment Coalition today filed suit against the San Diego Police Department to obtain information about the SDPD’s purchase and use of surveillance equipment that can identify and track all cell phones in a specific location, such as a building, neighborhood or street intersection.

“We believe the SDPD has an obligation to tell San Diego citizens that it is using this invasive technology and to describe the steps it is taking, if any, to protect citizens’ privacy rights,” said Peter Scheer, FAC’s executive director.

The SDPD is one of an estimated 40-50 police departments across the country that have purchased the equipment, called International Mobile Subscriber Identity Catchers (IMSI-catchers).  SDPD’s device, made by Harris Corp., is known by the brand name “Stingray.”

The IMSI-catcher technology is controversial because its sophisticated surveillance capabilities, while useful in criminal investigations, can also be misused in ways that infringe citizens’ privacy rights. For example, a Stingray deployed at the site of a political demonstration can detect, not only the phone of a legitimate subject of a legal  investigation, but also the cellphone numbers of hundreds of innocent citizens in the vicinity, including peaceful protesters, observers, passersby and journalists reporting on the event.

FAC, which is represented by Los Angeles attorney Kelly Aviles, filed suit to force SDPD to disclose records. The SDPD, responding to FAC’s request, turned over only a single, heavily-redacted, invoice for the agency’s apparent purchase of a Stingray from Harris Corp. in December 2012 for $33,000.

The SDPD denied access to all other records requested, but specifically declined to say whether it possessed additional responsive records that it had decided to withhold. The SDPD answered hypothetically that “assuming such documents exist,” they would be exempt from disclosure as records containing “security or intelligence information,” citing Gov Code section 6254(f). SDPD also cited other CPRA sections that imply that the records are subject to a confidentiality agreement.

“The SDPD can’t plausibly claim that everything about its use of the Stingray is Top Secret,” said FAC’s Scheer. “SDPD is not the CIA. It needs to level with the people of San Diego.”

The Stingray and other IMSI-catcher devices work by simulating a cell phone tower. All cellphones within range of the device seek to connect with it, even when the phones aren’t making or receiving calls.  The device can determine the numbers of all phones while capturing phone metadata, including numbers for incoming and outgoing calls.

FAC’s suit focuses on obtaining records showing the policies, rules and procedures that SDPD uses for Stingray surveillance, as well as the degree of judicial oversight. “Does SDPD apply for search warrants to use the Stingray, and if so, does it give judges enough information?” asked Scheer. “These are the kinds of things that the public has a right to know.” 

Go here for a copy of FAC’s petition, filed in San Diego Superior Court.

For more information contact:

Kelly A. Aviles
1502 Foothill Blvd., #103-140
La Verne, California 91750
Telephone: (909) 991-7560
Peter Scheer
534 4th St. Suite B
San Rafael, CA  94901
Telephone: (415) 460-5060