Cops Can’t Discuss Hi-Tech Privacy Threat
[su_r_sky_ad]Why is the public being kept in the dark about a disturbing surveillance device being sold only to law enforcement agencies?
A powerful new surveillance tool being adopted by police departments across the country comes with an unusual requirement: To buy it, law enforcement officials must sign a nondisclosure agreement preventing them from saying almost anything about the technology.
Any disclosure about the technology, which tracks cellphones and is often called StingRay, could allow criminals and terrorists to circumvent it, the F.B.I. has said in an affidavit. But the tool is adopted in such secrecy that communities are not always sure what they are buying or whether the technology could raise serious privacy concerns.
The confidentiality has elevated the stakes in a longstanding debate about the public disclosure of government practices versus law enforcement’s desire to keep its methods confidential. While companies routinely require nondisclosure agreements for technical products, legal experts say these agreements raise questions and are unusual given the privacy and even constitutional issues at stake. …
The technology goes by various names, including StingRay, KingFish or, generically, cell site simulator. It is a rectangular device, small enough to fit into a suitcase, that intercepts a cellphone signal by acting like a cellphone tower.
The technology can also capture texts, calls, emails and other data, and prosecutors have received court approval to use it for such purposes.
Cell site simulators are catching on while law enforcement officials are adding other digital tools, like video cameras, license-plate readers, drones, programs that scan billions of phone records and gunshot detection sensors. Some of those tools have invited resistance from municipalities and legislators on privacy grounds.
The nondisclosure agreements for the cell site simulators are overseen by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and typically involve the Harris Corporation, a multibillion-dollar defense contractor and a maker of the technology. What has opponents particularly concerned about StingRay is that the technology, unlike other phone surveillance methods, can also scan all the cellphones in the area where it is being used, not just the target phone.