POSTED BY Edwin Batista

Police have been using a device called Stingray to intercept phone calls and text messages to aid in their police work. However, privacy issues have been raised due to police refusing to elaborate on the details of their surveillance operation. Little is known about how police use Stingray and the rules they follow when using it even in states with strong open record laws. Efforts to obtain public-records regarding Police use of Stingray have been mostly fruitless.

At about the size of a suitcase, Stingray works by tricking cellphones in its range of operation into identifying themselves and transmitting their data to police rather than the nearest cellphone tower. It is not clear what information Stingray is capable of capturing because documents regarding Stingrays are usually heavily censored. In rare court appearance in 2011, the FBI confirmed that Stingray has the potential to affect innocent users in its area of operation.

Earlier this month the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, through one of its journalist, sued the Tucson Police Department, alleging that police had not complied with the State’s public-records law because police did not fully disclose Stingray records.

Awareness of police cell-tracking capabilities through their use of Stingray has spread across the country. News agencies in California, Florida and Philadelphia have been denied police records on Stingray. Attempts to obtain this information have been met with denials and challenges to such request in court. The main issue here is that there is an exception in public-records law that protects trade Secrets. It is through these trade secrets exception and nondisclosure agreements that Police have been able to decline to tell the courts about the use of Stingray.

The recent revelations about the surveillance programs run by the NSA has started a debate regarding the balance between citizen’s privacy and government surveillance policies. The issue of the lack of information on police use of Stingray will not go away and will likely intensify and spread across the country. The fact that police can avoid complying with public-records request by contracting with private companies with trade secrets and nondisclosure agreements must be addressed. In order to maintain our civil liberties and eliminate abuses public agencies need to be more transparent. A balance must be struck between allowing police to use technology to effectively do their job and allowing citizens the ability to make sure police are not abusing their power.

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