The Investigators

Jun 26, 2014 12:52 AM by Tom McNamara and Michel Marizco

N4T Investigators: Tucson police using secretive technology to monitor cell phones

TUCSON - Lawyers in Tucson are watching a civil case unfold in Superior Court between the Tucson Police Department and privacy advocates who say police here go too far a dragnet of cell phone calls within the city.

The program is called Stingray, a cell phone tracking system that enables police to monitor where a person is by their cell phone.

"It certainly can follow phones so it knows if any person is moving from Place A to Place B to Place C whether that person is interested in having people know his or her whereabouts or not," said Daniel Pochoda, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The concept behind Stingray is simple though the technology may not be. The Stingray device pretends to be your cell phone carrier's network. So instead of a Verizon tower, for example, your phone is tricked into sending its signal to a mobile device operated by police. This keeps police from having to ask cell phone companies for help. It works whether you're using the phone or not.

The ACLU sued the Tucson Police Department after the agency refused to turn over documents about the system to an independent reporter in Tucson who had requested the documents under the public records law.

Tucson Police declined an interview and refused to discuss even how the system works. In an email, Sgt. Chris Widmer said, "We cannot comment or conduct an interview in regards to any part of the subject" because of the litigation.

"Law enforcement's approach is to cast a wide net. Let's just collect everything anybody says does or whatever and we'll sort out later, maybe we'll find a criminal or two in that net. And that's just not a proper way to proceed," the ACLU's Pochoda said.

Stingray is only one system that police throughout the country are using. The Tucson Police Department signed a contract with the Harris Corporation in 2010. As part of that agreement, police agreed not to disclose the inner workings of the Stingray system.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators have learned so far, at least five people have been detained as suspects using Stingray. The details of their cases remain concealed.

The system has defense attorneys in Tucson questioning the legality of Stingray itself. "If you were using, you know, a warrant and doing intercepted phone taps, phone calls, well it's going to be for a specific phone number, name, person, what have you," said Brick Storts. "It's confined and going directly to who they're calling."

Networks like Stingray are springing up throughout the country. In a recent Florida case, federal agents seized cell phone data gathered by police to keep the records from going to privacy advocates like the ACLU.

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