How would you feel about police having secret technology that lets them track your exact movements via your cell phone without even having to get a warrant first? Well, it's not a paranoid, PRISM-fueled conspiracy theory. It's happening every day in the Sunshine State, where police agencies are using a device manufactured in Melbourne, Florida, to find suspects using their cell signals without asking a judge for permission.
Even worse, the cops refuse to talk about it. The ACLU has filed records requests with dozens of forces around the state for more information about the devices. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement's response: Sorry, the machines are "trade secrets" that can't be discussed.
"We usually see this kind of response in the national security area," Nathan Freed Wessler, an ACLU staff attorney, writes in a blog about the efforts this morning. "From a state police agency, it's particularly indefensible."
The device at the heart of the ACLU's records requests is called the Stingray and is made by the Melbourne-based Harris Corp. It works by tricking cell phones into thinking the machine is actually a cell phone tower and then triangulating the phone's exact location from the information it snags.
It's clear that police departments around the state, including the City of Miami and Miami-Dade, have gotten Stingrays. Other departments have admitted in court to using them thousands of times to find suspects without obtaining warrants first.
Advocates such as Wessler say that practice violates due process and is even more troubling because cell phone data from thousands of innocent bystanders is also gathered in the process.
The ACLU sent 36 police forces around the state FOIA requests earlier this month about the Stingrays, including three in Miami-Dade County. Those departments have yet to reply, but FDLE authorities have made it clear they don't believe the public has a right to know much about their use of the Stingray.
In a letter the ACLU posted this morning, the state cops say the software used is a "trade secret" and that "surveillance techniques" are off-limits to FOIA requests. They did admit to spending about $3 million on the devices and signing agreements with numerous local forces allowing them to borrow the machines when needed.
The ACLU has pushed back with another request letter to the FDLE asking for more detailed information about the program.
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Here's the FDLE's response: