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A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that Michigan police have been using portable cellphone tracking devices—so-called Stingrays and Kingfish among them—to investigate crimes since 2006. These devices are designed to imitate cell phone towers in order to gather metadata from cellphones in their vicinity. Police departments claimed to have purchased the equipment as a counterterrorism measure, but in fact it has been used for 128 “run-of-the-mill” investigations in Michigan, including burglaries and robberies.
One reason this is concerning is that police agencies have been required to sign contracts with Harris Corp., the company that makes the devices, saying they will not reveal they are using them. The devices are being used by police departments across the country, as well as the IRS.
“We [now] have a much better handle on the incredible magnitude of use and proliferation of this technology,” Nathan Wessler, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, told Truthdig. “We now know of 57 state and local agencies and more than a dozen federal agencies that have bought these devices, and surely there are many more that have bought them or are borrowing them,” he said.
Wessler said police departments get the devices with grants from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the ostensible purpose of fighting terrorism. However, he noted, the DHS doesn’t check on how they are used once police departments have purchased them.
Wessler was instrumental in establishing that officers in Michigan have been using these devices, and he has been tracking their use nationally. “Efforts are now turning from transparency—just figuring out what’s going on—to substantive oversight,” he said.
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