City Attorney defends SDPD’s cell phone tracking program
SAN DIEGO — In response to recent questions regarding the San Diego Police Department’s purchase of a cell phone tracking device, the City Attorney’s Office Monday released documents that explain what it does and why details need to be kept secret.
Last week, the inewsource website reported that the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition sued the city of San Diego and the police department to get them to release documents related to the use of the International Mobile Subscriber IdentityCatchers device called Stingray.
The Stingray works by mimicking cell phone towers. By capturing signals from targeted cell phones, police can obtain locations, outgoing calls, text messages and other information, according to innewsource, which reported that the SDPD has only made public a heavily redacted purchase order for $33,000.
Monday’s release of documents by the City Attorney’s Office included a generic explainer of Stingray written by the U.S. Department of Justice; a copy of a court ruling that allowed the Tucson Police Department to withhold information about the device; and an affidavit from a top FBI technology official.
The explainer, meant to be a template for local agencies, says: “The cell site simulator is a particularly effective tool and has assisted greatly in keeping the citizens of (LEA’s jurisdiction or community) safe.” LEA stands for Law Enforcement Agency.
It goes on to say that the need for secrecy has “unfortunately” led to “widely held misconceptions” about the device.
Police are required to get a court order before using the device, except in emergency situations involving kidnapping, missing children or evidence that a criminal act could lead to death of serious bodily injury, in which paperwork would be filed later, the document says. It says secrecy is required so that criminals don’t learn how to avoid detection.
In the court ruling, police in Tucson released some information regarding its Stingray, but not others. A reporter’s lawsuit to get the rest of the documentation was denied after a judge reviewed the materials in question.
In his declaration, Bradley Morrison, chief of the FBI’s Tracking Technology Unit, says publication of details about the Stingray could lead to the development of countermeasures.
Law enforcement agencies that take the cell phone trackers sign a nondisclosure agreement, he said.
The City Attorney’s Office said city and police officials would have no further comment, and that further questions should be referred to the U.S. Justice Department.
The inewsource website is a collaboration between KPBS and San Diego State University.