A secretive cellphone spy device known as StingRay, intended to fight terrorism, was used in far more routine LAPD criminal investigations 21 times in a four-month period during 2012, apparently without the courts' knowledge that the technology probes the lives of non-suspects who happen to be in the same neighborhood as suspected terrorists.
According to records released to the First Amendment Coalition under the California Public Records Act, StingRay, which allows police to track mobile phones in real time, was tapped for more than 13 percent of the 155 "cellular phone investigation cases" that Los Angeles police conducted between June and September last year.
As L.A. Weekly first reported in September, LAPD purchased StingRay technology sometime around 2006 with federal Department of Homeland Security funds. The original DHS grant documents said it was intended for "regional terrorism investigations."
But the newly released LAPD records show something markedly different: StingRays are being deployed for burglary, drug and murder investigations.
Yet LAPD still refuses to answer questions about the spy technology or the legal interpretation that Chief Charlie Beck's office thinks give his department such powers.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, says the documents released by LAPD acknowledge "that they do have this technology, and that they're using it. ... But the documents are ambiguous about whether or not the procedure requires a warrant or other judicial permission ... "
The portable StingRay device impersonates a cellphone tower, electronically fooling all nearby mobile phones — not just the suspect's phone — to send their signals into an LAPD computer. That signal reveals to police the location of phones in real time.
But the technology sucks up the data of every cellphone in the area, and these innocent phone owners never know police are grabbing their information.
Security researcher Chris Soghoian last year warned that StingRays can jeopardize privacy: "If the government shows up in your neighborhood, essentially every phone in the neighborhood is going to check in with the government. ... It's almost like Marco Polo — the government tower says 'Marco,' and every cellphone in the area says 'Polo.' "
Privacy advocates are troubled by StingRay's "self-service" aspects: Police can use the technology to get around the now-routine process of requesting location data from cellphone service providers. Carriers like Sprint and AT&T usually require that LAPD get a court order.
StingRay could let police bypass the service providers entirely, and secretly.
LAPD won't comment on whether that's what it is doing.
As with other emerging technologies, there's disagreement over how StingRays should fit into privacy laws, which weren't written with such sophisticated gadgets in mind. The courts have not yet weighed in.
ACLU of Northern California attorney Linda Lye, who closely follows StingRay technology, says it appears LAPD has embraced a very permissive interpretation toward obtaining court orders.
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The records suggest that LAPD doesn't explicitly describe StingRay but instead seeks a judge's permission to use a "pen register/trap and trace" — which is technology from landline days that functions like a caller ID, can't zero in on a person's real-time location like StingRay, and doesn't grab dozens or hundreds of innocent phone users in its web.
Equating StingRay with a "pen register/trap and trace," Lye says, is like applying for a search warrant for someone's home and then searching the entire apartment complex. "The government has the duty of candor when it goes to the court," she says. "If in fact they got court orders 21 times, and these were the court orders they sought, they were in no way disclosing the technology they were using — and that is very troubling."
Scheer says the First Amendment Coalition is preparing requests for more information in hopes of clearing up what LAPD is telling judges — and how often L.A. cops use the spy device without bothering to get a judge's approval.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @j0ncampbell.