Police fight cell phone spying lawsuit

This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows the StingRay II, manufactured by Harris Corporation, of Melbourne, Fla., a cellular site simulator used for surveillance purposes. Federal law enforcement officials will be routinely required to get a search warrant before using secretive and intrusive cellphone-tracking technology under a new Justice Department policy announced Sept. 3, 2015. The seven-page policy, the first of its kind, is designed to create a uniform legal standard for federal law enforcement agencies using equipment known as cell-site simulators. (AP Photo/U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)
This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows the StingRay II, manufactured by Harris Corporation, of Melbourne, Fla., a cellular site simulator used for surveillance purposes. Federal law enforcement officials will be routinely required to get a search warrant before using secretive and intrusive cellphone-tracking technology under a new Justice Department policy announced Sept. 3, 2015. The seven-page policy, the first of its kind, is designed to create a uniform legal standard for federal law enforcement agencies using equipment known as cell-site simulators. (AP Photo/U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Chicago Police Department’s Public Transportation Section hosted a special safety event on Monday morning. Held the 1st District Central police station, 1718 S State St., at 11 a.m., police shared tips to help people avoid pickpockets and other scam artists during the busy holiday shopping season.

“People are particularly vulnerable during the holidays when crowds flood stores, sidewalks, and subways,” said a release from police promoting the safety event. “Busy shoppers and commuters navigating through crowds are preoccupied with multiple obligations. A thief or con artist can blend into a crowd searching for an unsuspecting target.”

But at the same time police were showing people how to avoid being an unsuspecting target, a court at Daley Plaza listened to attorneys argue over whether CPD should reveal information on the “StingRay” devices it uses to spy on people’s cell phones without their knowledge.

Created by the Harris Corporation, a StingRay is a radio interception device used to trick a cellphone in range into connecting with it instead of a legitimate cell phone tower. A computer linked to a StingRay then allows the device’s user to access the data from the cell phone that was tricked. This information includes call and messaging logs, geolocation data and handset information.

Last September Freddy Martinez, a Chicago-area resident employed in the software industry, filed a lawsuit against the city after it denied his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests asking for clarification on how and when CPD uses its Stingray devices.

“Previously the CPD refused to acknowledge that it had even bought this equipment,” said Martinez. “This technology was originally designed by the U.S. military to track down terrorists and now is being used in our backyards without any kind of meaningful oversight or constitutional analysis.”

Martinez’s suit alleges CPD has failed to obtain warrants based on probable cause and has little if any oversight on how officers are using these devices in their jurisdiction.

“As with the Laquan McDonald police shooting video, CPD is trying to hide information about an important issue that warrants a robust public debate,” said Matthew Topic, an attorney for Loevy & Loevy representing Martinez in the suit. Topic has gone toe to toe with the city over police accountability in the past, earlier this month he won a FOIA suit to demand the release the McDonald shooting video to the public. As a result of its release, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, 37, was charged on Tuesday with first-degree murder for allegedly fatally shooting McDonald “without legal justification and with the intent to kill or do great bodily harm,” according to the one-page criminal complaint filed against him.

“Many are concerned, given CPD’s long history of illegal surveillance of political groups, that CPD is using this equipment to build databases of information about political activists,” says Topic.

That long history includes the CPD’s infamous Red Squad. The earliest version of the group was created around the aftermath of the Haymarket bombing on May 4, 1886. The police department tasked these officers with spying and infiltrating political groups by any means necessary. As detailed in the 1985 federal decree that shut it down, the Red Squad’s tactics included illegal surveillance, infiltration, and intimidation of anyone considered a threat to the city.

By 1960 CPD had collected information on approximately 117,000 Chicagoans, 141,000 out-of-towners, and 14,000 organizations, including members of the American Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Lawyers Guild, Operation PUSH, and other lawful groups protected by the First Amendment, according to court records.

So far CPD has only disclosed that it paid Harris Corp. over than $340,000 between 2005 and 2010 for the StingRay and related devices, as well as software upgrades and training. However it has refused to disclose details on how the technology is used, saying court orders for the police to use the systems for investigations are under seal.

Similar to the city, Harris Corp. has aggressively fought FOIA requests and argues their devices would only be used in “emergency situations.”

Yet in an October 2014 letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Harris Corporation executive Tania Hanna asked the agency to withhold documents related to its StingRay and related surveillance equipment from public disclosure because the records contained “trade secrets” and information about “law enforcement techniques,” according to the letter.

Yet last year the ACLU reported that, “records released by the Tallahassee, Florida, Police Department explain that in nearly 200 cases since 2007 where the department used a StingRay, only 29 percent involved emergencies; most of the rest involved criminal investigations in which there was ample time to seek some sort of authorization from a judge.”

In light of the recent attacks on Paris, EXTRA reached out to CPD News Affairs for clarification on what types of emergencies the StingRay devices would be used. At press time CPD had not returned our request for comment.

Cook County Judge Kathleen Kennedy is expected to make a ruling on the suit on Jan. 11 of next year.

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