Police Tracking of Cellphones Could Violate Law

The Baltimore City Police use of “stingray” cellphone technology has triggered a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on the grounds that the technology interferes with 911 calls and is used in a way that discriminates against African-Americans.

A coalition of civil rights groups including the Center for Media Justice, the Color of Change, and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, filed a complaint with the FCC recently urging the federal agency to ensure that police in Baltimore and elsewhere follow the law when using cellphone tracking technology. In particular, they argue that the police are making unlicensed transmissions which cause widespread network interference.

The devices at issue are cell site simulators also known as stingray devices. They operate by mimicking cell phone towers which induces phones in the vicinity to connect to the simulator in place of their normal networks. These intercepted connections enable police to collect information including the location of individual phones.

According to The Baltimore Sun, police admit to using these devices on thousands of occasions while investigating crimes of different types.

This admission came out in court and when it was learned that police investigators had not revealed the use of this technology to judges and defense lawyers, the court ruled that police could not use cellphone simulator technology without a warrant. (Duncan, Ian. “FCC complaint: Baltimore Police breaking law with use of stingray phone trackers.” The Baltimore Sun, August 16, 2016. www.baltimoresun.com.)

Stingray technology has been kept secret by police and details of its use are even today only partially known by the public. The Sun reports an FCC spokesman as stating that “The commission expects state and local law enforcement to work through the appropriate legal processes to use these devices.” But the complaint alleges that cellphone simulators interfere with cellphone calls and could interfere with the ability to complete 911 emergency calls.

A technology expert for the American Civil Liberties Union reports that stingray devices sometimes route calls to less secure connections or even completely block calls.

Defense attorney Thomas Soldan commented, “Since the police use of the devices is not widely known or understood, people suffering from service disruptions have been unaware of the cause and police have not been held accountable.”

Moreover, the complaint alleges that the disrupted and blocked calls occur at a disproportionately greater level in African-American neighborhoods and therefore cause greater harm in those areas.

In addition to potentially dangerous cellphone disruptions, the complaint raises concerns that the use of the devices violates free speech rights and constitutes intrusive police practices that violate the civil rights of cellphone users.

Specifically, according to The Sun, the complainants state that “The problem of radicalized surveillance is particularly pronounced in Baltimore, where BPD’s racially biased policing is clearly reflected in its racially biased deployment of [cell site] simulators.”

A lawyer representing the group reports that the Baltimore City Police Department probably uses stingray technology more than any other police department in the nation. Therefore, it seems likely that lawsuits filed against police for rights violations and racially discriminatory practices would find a greater likelihood of success in Baltimore than

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