Feds swoop in, snatch mobile phone tracking records away from ACLU

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Mobile, Privacy

Image of Statue of Liberty, courtesy of ShutterstockThe American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a run-of-the-mill public records request about cell phone surveillance with a local police department in Florida.

The US Marshals Service last week reacted by swooping in and snatching those records out from under the ACLU's nose just hours before they were supposed to review them.

After the Feds seized the surveillance records, US Marshals then moved the physical records 320 miles away, meaning the ACLU wouldn't be able to learn how, and how extensively, police use snooping devices.

The ACLU promptly filed an emergency motion to get local police to disclose the records, which detailed how police had used a stingray to track nearby phones to a suspect’s apartment without getting a warrant.

A Florida judge last Tuesday granted the ACLU's emergency motion.

A stingray is a surveillance device that sends powerful signals to trick cell phones - including those of innocent bystanders - into transmitting their locations and their IDs.

The ACLU called the records grab an "extraordinary attempt to keep information from the public".

Even a former judge and a former United States magistrate judge found the US Marshals' action "weird" and "out of line", they told Ars Technica.

Former US magistrate judge Brian Owsley had this to say:

This one is particularly disturbing given the federal government's role in coming in and taking all of these records that were at issue in a state open government act.

In order to spirit away the records, the ACLU explains, the US Marshals waved a wand over Sarasota police detective Michael Jackson and transmogrified him - and the records - into their own property:

The Sarasota Police set up an appointment for us to inspect the applications and orders, as required by Florida law. But a few hours before that appointment, an assistant city attorney sent an email cancelling the meeting on the basis that the US Marshals Service was claiming the records as their own and instructing the local cops not to release them. Their explanation: the Marshals Service had deputized the local officer, and therefore the records were actually the property of the federal government.

The ACLU called the Marshal’s actions highly irregular:

The Sarasota detective created the applications, brought them to court, and retained the applications and orders in his files. Merely giving [the detective] a second title ('Special Deputy US Marshal') does not change these facts. But regardless, once the Sarasota Police Department received our records request, state law required them to hold onto the records for at least 30 days, to give us an opportunity to go to court and seek an order for release of the documents.

Last week, Ars Technica reported how use of the stingray in a Tallahassee, Florida, rape case only came out once testimony from a local police officer was unsealed.

The detective had told the court that he would only testify about how the stingray was used if his testimony was not made public.

That's because, the assistant attorney general told the court, the police were under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

Late last Tuesday, the judge ordered unsealing of the entire transcript of the suppression hearing.

The ACLU published the portion that, it says, the government tried to keep secret.

The ACLU says the released information "confirms key information about the invasiveness of stingray technology", including that:

  • Stingrays "emulate a cellphone tower" and "force" cell phones to register their location and identifying information with the stingray instead of with real cell towers in the area.
  • Stingrays can track cell phones whenever the phones are turned on, not just when they are making or receiving calls.
  • Stingrays force cell phones in range to transmit information back "at full signal, consuming battery faster."
  • When in use, stingrays are "evaluating all the [cell phone] handsets in the area" in order to search for the suspect’s phone. That means that large numbers of innocent bystanders' location and phone information is captured.
  • In this case, police used two versions of the stingray - one mounted on a police vehicle, and the other carried by hand. Police drove through the area using the vehicle-based device until they found the apartment complex in which the target phone was located, and then they walked around with the handheld device and stood "at every door and every window in that complex" until they figured out which apartment the phone was located in. In other words, police were lurking outside people's windows and sending powerful electronic signals into their private homes in order to collect information from within.
  • The Tallahassee detective testifying in the hearing estimated that, between spring of 2007 and August of 2010, the Tallahassee Police had used stingrays "200 or more times."

I agree with a commenter on Ars's coverage, CQLanik, who noted that if a local police department can't allow the public to know the shady methods used to come by their evidence, then that method shouldn't be legal:

People have a right to face their accuser, and that right is being taken away by the use of secret evidence gathering.

What do you think?

Image of Statue of Liberty courtesy of Shutterstock.

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10 Responses to Feds swoop in, snatch mobile phone tracking records away from ACLU

  1. Joe · 482 days ago

    This case illustrates the lack of boundaries between local, state, federal, military, and intelligence agencies. Though it sounds a bit melodramatic, we are now in fact living in a police state.

  2. sobic · 482 days ago

    once upon a time, a long time ago, we thought the "airwaves" were the property of "the People", to be used for the common good. "Your fault, my fault, nobody's fault", the aether now belongs to the telcos, and we may use it when they let us.
    i think part of the problem is that, for some reason, we started believing that parts of the spectrum were not radio transmissions, thus were private. no more private than a conversation on the Commons or in a pub.
    cell phone is not copper wire, it's radio. radio is electromagnetic energy. light is electromagnetic energy. "the eye cannot trespass". apparently, neither can my Stingray.

  3. Jim · 482 days ago

    I agree with you Joe. It's hard to argue that we are not living in a police-state, especially when reading articles like this. The Feds 'deputized' a local police officer, therefor they have the right to do whatever they want? There is no longer a division between Federal, State, and Local government. I guess this is Obama's "National Federal Police Force" or whatever he spoke about. The Feds call the shots, there isn't a damn thing anyone can do short of protesting, and even that will get you arrested.

    • Hey is now a good time to suggest that all guns be banned and the 2nd amendment be repealed now? I mean what were the founders thinking when they created the 2nd amendment? Everything is fine, nothing to worry about, the government is here to help. . .

      Seriously though, see how governments run out of control? See how they slowly take power and justify it through strange round about means and insist it is "legal" yet ignoring the entire concept of privacy, rights, 4th amendment etc. Power needs to go back into the peoples hands.

      If your voting for gun control you're wrong

      If your voting for the government to control your healthcare, you're wrong.

      If you don't like private property, you're wrong.

      If you believe in people losing property because of EPA regs, you're wrong.

  4. Max · 482 days ago

    A police state is nothing to joke about or be taken lightly. Germany once was was and many may say China is, but one thing is for sure. Portions of the US federal goverment were given the power and oportunity to start us down the same slide. Ohh sure many may argue that unlike Germany or China, the merits that the US is doing this are base on good intentions. Doing what's best to keep those within the US borders, safe and protecting Truth, Justice, the American way, or something like that. Maybe it's true?

    The US certainly has earned all of our trust throughout it's history, encouraging slavery, womens' right to vote, and US consentration camps, just to name a small few. Sure those oppressions have been abolished but there are many more in progress or yet to have been fought. All I ask is that we remember that change like this wasn't done because of a secret military or police state made it happen, it was accomplished because of an open goverment. It was through the governments overt nature that we could discuss, debate, and eventually change.

    If we can no longer debate in public forums like an open court, then how will we improve? How will we feel safe from oppressions yet to be debated or ones that will return or be added because they can no longer be discussed.

  5. Terry · 482 days ago

    It's not just a police state. It's a secret police state.

  6. 4caster · 482 days ago

    A Police State requires a repressive regime sustained by a secret police force. By definition no democracy can be a Police State.

    The first three definitions I Googled were:
    1. A state in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic, and political life of the people, especially by means of a secret police force.
    2. A state or country in which a repressive government maintains control through the police.
    3. A totalitarian state or country in which a national police force, esp. a secret police, suppresses any act that conflicts with government policy.

    If either the UK or the USA were a Police State, we would not even be allowed to discuss this matter. Some people are just paranoid.

    • 2072 · 481 days ago

      Yet most people tend to forget that democracy is a fragile thing which needs the public's protection in order to survive. As the kind of slip described in this article become more and more frequent, people will get used to them and before they know it will find it perfectly normal to have no privacy any more because "[they] have nothing to hide anyway" until they do and it's too late.

    • Michael · 367 days ago

      The US is NOT a democracy, and never was. The US is a partially socialist, (Social Security, Medicare, Public Schools) partially capitalist, oligarchy (Supreme Court)-plutocracy(unlimited campaign donations)-republic(congress).

      While the US is not a complete police state, the past several years has seen a shift away from the Andy Griffith type local police where they were more interested in people - e.g. scolding or returning to parents for punishment rather than incarceration.
      We have moved to SWAT teams issuing warrants for overdue student loans.
      We have privatized prisons with minimum occupancy rates, and built dozens of them (California built 20+ in recent years).
      We have cases of people being arrested for nudity in their own homes.
      We have cases of people being arrested for drunkenness in bars.
      We have cases of people being maced by police while already detained.

      Does this mean we are in a complete police state? No, however, the police state seems to be growing in size and frequency. They police state can swoop in and do anything, but not everything.

  7. GoinFawr · 480 days ago


    No, it isn't paranoid to be concerned about yet another thin end of yet another wedge. I mean soon enough your phone will automatically ticket you if you step off the curb at an intersection a millisecond after the 'don't walk' hand starts flashing... but perhaps you think that will be just plain super.

    Without fail these things always happen to states that fall into debt slavery: their power becomes a tool for private creditors (usually foreign and unaccountable) rather than its constituents, who become unwitting vassals.


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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.