Controversy arises over police use of cell phone tracking technology
Prosecutors in our area and around the country have dropped evidence and cut deals to avoid revealing details regarding police use of NSA-style secret technology to track cell phones. WUSA
WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- New controversy has arisen over police use of NSA-style secret technology being used to track cell phones.
Prosecutors in our area and around the country have dropped evidence and cut deals to avoid revealing details of the surveillance equipment.
The suitcase size devices usually called Stingrays scarf up cell phone data, and local police are spending as much as 400-thousand dollars in federal terrorism grants to purchase them.
Stingrays are like fake cell phone towers, phones register with them and as they drive around, police can triangulate a phone's precise location in real time.
Fairfax County, Montgomery County and D.C. Police have all spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on them, but decline to talk about it and will not say if they're going to ask a judge to get a warrant to use them
Alan Butler of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in the District says the purpose of a warrant is to have a judge, an independent neutral third party, review the police request.
In Baltimore, the Baltimore Sun says a judge threatened to hold a detective in contempt of court for refusing to say how police pinpointed a suspect.
In Florida, The Washington Post reports, prosecutors pleaded out what looked like a slam dunk case against a small time pot dealer rather than detail police use of a Stingray. Federal officials have sworn police departments to secrecy, but judges have been pushing back.
Law professor Paul Rothstein of the Georgetown University Law Center says the Supreme Court has been very skeptical about this kind of surveillance.
The Stingray grabs data not just from the target's phone, but from the phones of everyone in the area.
Critics say it needs to be very clear that police agencies have to throw out information on hundreds or potentially thousands of innocent people who are swept up by the surveillance.
"It shows where you are. It shows who you're talking to, it's shows where you're going," explained Butler.
The Justice Department, The Metropolitan, Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery County Police all declined to comment on this cell phone surveillance technology.
Prince George's and Loudoun County authorities told WUSA9 that they do not have this technology.
Police suggest just talking about this technology will make it less effective, but critics say we have to discuss how it's being used to protect the privacy of innocent Americans.