Tacoma police use cellphone surveillance device

TACOMA — A newspaper reported Wednesday that Tacoma police have purchased and used surveillance equipment that can sweep up records of cell phone calls, text messages and data transfers up to a half mile away.

The device is small enough to be carried in a car and tricks cell phones into thinking it’s a cell tower, drawing in their information, The News Tribune reported.

The Tacoma Police Department has not confirmed that it has such a device, called a Stingray. However, Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said Tuesday that the Police Department sometimes uses the device to assist the sheriff’s office.

Troyer said the sheriff’s department has asked Tacoma police to use its Stingray on Pierce County’s behalf in at least two cases since April. One man threw a bottle of gunpowder at a victim. The sheriff’s office got a warrant to locate the suspect, who was then arrested.

The News Tribune says public records, as well as other documents it has reviewed, indicate the Police Department has had the ability to wirelessly search neighborhoods since 2008.

Police Chief Don Ramsdell declined an interview request to talk about the department’s apparent purchase of a Stingray device and associated technology.

The Everett Police Department does not own that kind of device, according to its records unit.

Neither does the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

“We do have access to the technology via other agencies,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said. “If we were to utilize Stingray, we’d be required to get a court-issued warrant first.”

Law enforcement agencies can use such devices to track a cell signal to learn a person’s location, whom he communicates with, for how long and how often. Investigators can use the technology to find drug dealers and criminals. Civil libertarians are concerned that police are secretly sweeping up information from innocent people in such broad searches.

“They are essentially searching the homes of innocent Americans to find one phone used by one person,” said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. “It’s like they’re kicking down the doors of 50 homes and searching 50 homes because they don’t know where the bad guy is.”

When told about the device Tuesday, Ronald Culpepper, the presiding judge of the Pierce County Superior Court, said if police “use it wisely and within limits, that’s one thing.

“I would certainly personally have some concerns about just sweeping up information from non-involved and innocent parties — and to do it with a whole neighborhood?” he said. “That’s concerning.”

The Tacoma Police Department appears to have updated its equipment last year with money authorized by the City Council. Several council members now say they didn’t know what they were buying.

City Manager T.C. Broadnax said he does not know the specifics of what the police department bought. But he believes the department “adequately briefed the City Council on the particulars of what we were buying and how and when they would use it under certain circumstances.”

“I’m not in law enforcement, but it’s my impression that it assists them in doing their job more effectively, and that’s to protect the public,” Broadnax said.

The Stingray is a popular cell phone surveillance device manufactured by Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Florida. Cell phones seek the strongest cell tower signal, and a Stingray pretends to be a cell tower with a strong signal.

The phones are tricked into passing data through government equipment before going to a legitimate cell phone tower — and the cell phone’s owner has no idea that has happened.

Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU in Seattle, said governments need to have transparent policies on the use of “invasive surveillance technology.”

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