Thanks to a little-known device manufactured by a tech company in Melbourne, police departments across Florida have tracked thousands of cell phones -- often without bothering to get a warrant first. In at least one case, the cops purposely kept the device secret in court because the company asked them not to talk about it.
Now the ACLU is pushing back. The group filed public records requests this week with dozens of forces around the state -- including departments in Miami, Hialeah and Broward -- to find out how often they've used the warrantless tracking, and asked a state court to unseal records about its use.
The shadowy world of cell phone tracking by cops revolves around a device manufactured by the Harris Corp. in Melbourne called the Stingray. The machine essentially tricks cell phones into thinking that it's a cell tower, and then triangulates the phone's exact location using the signal.
Its unclear just how many forces around Florida use the Stingray, but Wikileaks showed that Miami-Dade Police Department spent $30,000 on two devices; a follow-up investigative report found MDPD had used it more than 300 times by 2012.
The ACLU's own research suggests that the Miami Police Department may have also procured a Stingray, as well as the Sunrise PD in Broward. The ACLU suspects many other Florida forces are using the devices on the sly.
In records requests sent to 29 departments around the state on Friday -- including the departments in Miami, Hialeah, Sunrise, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood -- the ACLU has asked for detailed information about how often the Stingray has been used, whether warrants were obtained and what cases were affected by info gathered using the machines.
"We don't know how many forces use the Stingray, which is a major reason we're filing these requests," Nathan Freed Wessler, an ACLU staff attorney, tells Riptide.
The lack of public records about their use suggests that many forces don't bother with warrants before tracking phones. "We would expect that if police were going to get warrants and disclose the use it would come up more often in prosecutions," Wessler says. "We suspect there is excessive secrecy around these devices because there simply isn't much information about them in court opinions and public records."
In addition to the lack of warrants, civil rights advocates are troubled by the Stingray because the device provides cops with reams of information about bystanders as well as suspects.
"If police departments are going to use this kind of powerful surveillance technology, they need clear rules in place so they aren't collecting private information," Wessler says.
The ACLU points to new information in Tallahassee as a particularly troubling example of how the Stingray can be abused. Tallahassee police used the machine in 2008 to track down a rape suspect, but then refused to disclose that that's how they'd found the man when asked under oath by his attorneys.
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The reason? Harris had asked the department to stay mum about the device in exchange for loaning it to them. Tallahassee PD's use of the Stingray was only recently revealed in an appeal hearing, which found they'd used it more than 200 times without ever getting a warrant.
Here's the letter sent to Miami PD on Friday: