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March 23, 2014

Police phone-tracking contracts often kept secret

WASHINGTON — Police across the country may be intercepting phone calls or text messages to find suspects using a technology tool known as Stingray. But they’re refusing to turn over details about its use or heavily censoring files when they do.

Police say Stingray, a suitcase-sized device that pretends it’s a cell tower, is useful for catching criminals, but that’s about all they’ll say.

For example, they won’t disclose details about contracts with the device’s manufacturer, Harris Corp., insisting they are protecting both police tactics and commercial secrets. The secrecy — at times imposed by non-disclosure agreements signed by police — is pitting obligations under private contracts against government transparency laws.

Even in states with strong open records laws, including Florida and Arizona, little is known about police use of Stingray and any rules governing it.

A Stingray device tricks all cellphones in an area into electronically identifying themselves and transmitting data to police rather than the nearest phone company’s tower. Because documents about Stingrays are regularly censored, it’s not immediately clear what information the devices could capture, such as the contents of phone conversations and text messages, what they routinely do capture based on how they’re configured or how often they might be used.

In one of the rare court cases involving the device, the FBI acknowledged in 2011 that so-called cell site simulator technology affects innocent users in the area where it’s operated, not just a suspect police are seeking.

Earlier this month, journalist Beau Hodai and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sued the Tucson Police Department, alleging in court documents that police didn’t comply with the state’s public-records law because they did not fully disclose Stingray-related records and allowed Harris Corp. to dictate what information could be made public.

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