For years, Florida police agencies have secretly purchased mysterious devices called Stingrays. Manufactured in Delray Beach and sold for up to $134,000, the machine lets cops track cell phones. And even though Stingrays were bought mostly with anti-terrorism money and pitched as emergency-only options, local court records hint that police around the state frequently used them in routine cases -- often without bothering to get a warrant first.
Now, for the first time, we know just how often the Miami-Dade Police Department used its Stingrays. In a one-year period ending last May, MDPD tracked cell phones in 59 closed criminal cases -- and presumably many other cases that remained open.
That figure comes thanks to a newly released mass FOIA request from the ACLU of Florida, which calls the results "troubling for anyone who cares about privacy rights."
"The documents paint a detailed picture of police using an invasive technology -- one that can follow you inside your house -- in many hundreds of cases and almost entirely in secret," ACLU staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler writes in a release about the new records.
Miami-Dade Police responded to a broad request from the ACLU for information about how the department had used the Stingray and related devices made by Delray Beach's Harris Manufacturing Corp.
Purchasing documents previously obtained by the ACLU showed MDPD had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the machines, but -- like many departments around Florida -- MDPD had left the Stingrays' use shrouded in secrecy, often declining to mention their use even in criminal cases where they played a key role in netting an arrest.
MDPD's response doesn't detail exactly which cases they used Stingrays (the department wants $1,916 to round up that information). But it says 59 criminal cases closed between May 2013 and 2014 relied on Stingray data.
"The total number of investigations where the agency used Stingrays is surely larger," Freed Wessler notes, "since that figure does not include cases that were still active at the time of its response."
MDPD's history with the Stingray isn't exactly a shining light of criminal justice, either. Department documents show the department first bought Stingrays back in 2003, just in time to use them to spy on protesters at the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in downtown Miami.
Although Miami PD has purchased Stingrays or related machines, the department hasn't responded to the ACLU's request for more detailed info about how often they've used them or in what types of cases.
But it's a fair bet that neither MDPD's 59 criminal cases last year nor whatever crimes inspired Miami PD and Hialeah PD to whip out their Stingrays amounted to the ISIS-level threats that Harris Corp. cites in its sales pitches.
That's because one department has given the ACLU extremely detailed info about how they use the devices: Tallahassee PD detailed more than 250 cases where they've tracked cell phones, and -- surprise! -- the vast majority were routine robbery, theft, or missing persons cases.
"The Tallahassee list reveals not a single national security-related investigation," Freed Wessler writes.
Big picture, the question raised by the new records is whether you have any issue with MDPD intercepting loads of cell-phone data and tracking individual devices, all without a warrant.
Not that we don't trust local police to always do the right thing, but that should concern anyone using a cell phone in South Florida.
Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that Hialeah PD had purchased Stingray equipment. Rather, the department responded to the ACLU's request that it didn't have records related to purchasing the devices.
However, Hialeah didn't answer whether they'd ever asked other agencies to track cell phones, had ever used the technology in any closed criminal cases or had any internal policies governing their use. Here's Hialeah's response:
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