This isn’t a matter of an Obama administration official whispering in local law enforcement’s ears or sending a vague memo. They’ve been actively interfering in public records requests and lawsuits:
The Obama administration has been quietly advising local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology they are using to sweep up basic cellphone data from entire neighborhoods, The Associated Press has learned.
Citing security reasons, the U.S. has intervened in routine state public records cases and criminal trials regarding use of the technology. This has resulted in police departments withholding materials or heavily censoring documents in rare instances when they disclose any about the purchase and use of such powerful surveillance equipment.
Federal involvement in local open records proceedings is unusual. It comes at a time when President Barack Obama has said he welcomes a debate on government surveillance and called for more transparency about spying in the wake of disclosures about classified federal surveillance programs.
As we know, local law enforcement is well on its way to becoming baby military forces, with MRAPs, riot gear galore, and firepower sometimes akin to the U.S. Marine Corps. Now, we know they’re becoming baby NSAs, and being just as secretive about it. What I find most discouraging about this story is that, if you can’t get any clear idea from your local government about where and how it might be capable of spying on you, there is no chance you’re going to get any answers from the feds. And, if we can’t be assured that we can even have cellphone conversations without our information being dragnetted, we’re not really free at all. This seems a rather low bar.
Here’s one of the tactics they’ve used, exhibiting the light touch the federal government is so famous for:
Some of the government’s tactics to hide Stingray from journalists and the public have been downright disturbing. After the ACLU had filed a records request for information on Stingrays, the local police force initially told them that, yes, they had the documents and to come on down to the station to look at them. But just before an ACLU rep was due to arrive, US Marshals seized the records and hid them away at another location, in what Wessler describes as “a blatant violation of state open-records laws”.
The ACLU explains how the technology works, and how it can ensnare plenty of people who are merely guilty of being adjacent to an investigation:
Cell site simulators, also known as “stingrays,” are devices that trick cellphones into reporting their locations and identifying information. They do so by mimicking cellphone towers and sending out electronic cues that allow the police to enlist cellphones as tracking devices, thus revealing people’s movements with great precision. The equipment also sends intrusive electronic signals through the walls of private homes and offices, learning information about the locations and identities of phones inside. Initially the domain of the National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies, the use of stingrays has trickled down to federal, state and local law enforcement. In one Florida case, a police officer explained in court that he “quite literally stood in front of every door and window” with his stingray to track the phones inside a large apartment complex.
Even when police are tracking a specific suspect, stingrays sweep up information about large numbers of bystanders who happen to be nearby; if stingrays yell out “Marco,” the mobile phones in the area reply, “Polo.” The result is that police gather the electronic serial numbers and other information about phones, as well as the direction and strength of each phone’s signal, allowing precise location tracking. Stingrays can also gather information about people’s communications, such as which phone numbers they call. Because we carry our cellphones with us virtually everywhere we go, stingrays can paint a precise picture of where we are and who we spend time with, including our location in a lover’s house, in a psychologist’s office or at a political protest.
But mind you, President Obama is intent on a healthy debate about the limits of these powers when he’s not actively working to hide that governments are using these powers.
Vice on HBO checked out this trend in Camden, N.J.: