TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The National Security Agency apparently isn't the only government agency engaged in domestic spying.
Some local law enforcement agencies are playing the role of Big Brother, too, but to what extent is still unknown.
Recent court documents reveal a troubling cell phone surveillance program conducted by a Florida police department against unsuspecting cell phone users.
Attempts to keep the practice secret, even from judges, are raising questions as to just how prevalent police spying is within the Sunshine State.
The controversy stems from the arrest of James L. Thomas, who was believed to be in possession of a stolen phone. Tallahassee police located and arrested Thomas by tracking a cell phone signal, then promptly searched his home.
It later became known that police didn’t seek a warrant, nor did they admit to using a little-known surveillance device called a “Stingray.”
Stingrays are small mobile devices that trick cell phones into connecting to them by simulating cell phone towers.
The technology gives police the ability to track phone movements and intercept both phone calls and text messages of phone within range.
In the court case, Thomas’ attorney asked police how they determined the defendant had the cell phone in question. The police declined to answer. A judge ordered a response, but only after clearing the courtroom and sealing the official record.
Now on appeal, courtroom deliberations revealed last week that the Tallahassee Police Department has used a Stingray 200 times since 2010 without seeking a warrant.
“This record makes it very clear that (the Tallahassee Police Department) were not going to get a search warrant because they had never gotten a search warrant for this technology,” an appeals court judge said.
Beyond the prospect of unconstitutional, warrantless police searches, government watchdogs have long warned against surveillance tactics that broadly expose the personal information of countless innocent people in attempts by law enforcement to identify individuals suspected of crimes.
“When police use invasive surveillance equipment to surreptitiously sweep up information about the locations and communications of large numbers of people, court oversight and public debate are essential,” the American Civil Liberties Union said.
The ACLU is now leading the effort to determine just how widespread cell phone tracking is in Florida. The group announced a March 3 public records request to nearly 30 police and sheriffs’ departments across the state.
Court documents show that the Tallahassee Police Department didn’t seek a search warrant in the Thomas case because it “did not want to reveal information about the technology they used to track the cell phone signal.”
TPD also said the Stingray was loaned to the department from a private manufacturer who in turn required a nondisclosure agreement.
“A nondisclosure agreement is typically a civil agreement between two or more parties over a commercial contract,” Christopher Torres, a Tallahassee defense lawyer, told Watchdog.org.
“They’re saying because it’s a cell phone they don’t have to get a warrant, but it’s basically a wiretap,” Torres said. “You cannot say something is protected by a trade agreement and that somehow trumps the U.S. Constitution.”
According to Ars Technica, Stingrays are exclusively manufactured by the Harris Corp., a Melbourne-based telecommunications company.
Earning $5 billion in annual revenue, Harris Corp. supplies electronic equipment to government, defense and commercial sectors.
“Since 2004, Harris has earned more than $40 million from spy technology contracts with city, state, and federal authorities in the U.S., according to procurement records,” reports Ars Technica, a technology news site.William Patrick is a reporter for Florida Watchdog, which is affiliated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.