The device that makes it possible is called a "cell site simulator." That's the generic name; Stingray is the most common brand name.
Initially developed for military use, Stingrays have made their way into local police and sheriff's departments around the country. Months ago, the I-Team sent open records requests to every law enforcement agency in our viewing area and learned that three agencies close to home have been using cell site simulators: the Wake County Sheriff's Department, Durham Police Department, and Raleigh Police Department. A spokesperson for RPD told the I-Team they stopped using theirs when the software needed to be upgraded.
The ACLU's Mike Meno has been watching Stingrays spread into local law enforcement for years.
"Like a lot of militarized technology and surveillance technology, this is something that was developed overseas and it was developed for one use, but then it comes back home and is used against our own citizens. It's used here in the States. And the government will say, 'We need to keep this confidential,' but we have constitutional rights. We're supposed to have checks and balances," he said.
A SHORT LOOK AT HOW THEY WORK
Cell site simulators do just what you might think they do - "simulate" a cell tower. They're basically decoys that trick our phones into connecting with them instead of the nearest, strongest cell tower.
"These are tracking devices," explained Meno holding up his phone. "This is emitting a signal. This is GPS."
Once they're connected, law enforcement has access to a range of data depending on what software they're using.
"It's my understanding that the software that a lot of these devices use is capable of capturing things like text messages and the numbers you're calling and receiving calls from," Meno said. "We know for sure they're getting location. And that's primarily what it's used for, to track a suspect. And they can track your location with such accuracy that they can figure out which room in a house you're in. These things can see through walls. And when you ask them why they're doing it, they'll say to target individuals. But the nature of the technology is so expansive that you can't use it without countless innocent people having their data captured as well."
The First Rule of Fight Club is...
With Stingrays, secrecy is part of the deal.
In the small print of the detailed contract between the city of Durham and the company that makes the Stingray - Harris Corporation - the I-Team noticed a strict non-disclosure agreement, reading "Neither party will, without the prior written consent of the other party: a) make any news release, public announcement, denial or confirmation of this Agreement or its subject matter; or b) in any manner advertise or publish the fact of this Agreement."
No one in law enforcement would talk to us about Stingrays except for Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, and he was reluctant.
"We don't like to talk about it," Harrison said. "When a general goes into battle, he doesn't give out his battle plans."
Harrison did give examples of how his department uses its cell site simulator it for helping the community as well as tracking suspects.
"It's a very useful tool that we use," Harrison said. "Not only for the bad guys, but for looking for people that are lost, looking for people that say they're going to commit suicide, sometimes we have used them for children that are missing who have phones. And that's all I'm going to say about it. It's something we use as a tool to keep people safe in this county and in this state."
Harrison didn't stop quite there, though. He pushed back on any suggestion or suspicion that Stingrays were being used outside the law or in a fashion inconsistent with the Constitution.
"When we use the cell site simulator, we go to a Superior Court judge, and we get a court order. We're perfectly legal," he explained.
WATCH HARRISON'S EXTENDED INTERVIEW HERE
But as Meno reiterated: we have to take law enforcement at their word. There is almost no public transparency about the powerful surveillance technology and few laws confining its use.
"We don't know what policies are guiding the use of these devices," Meno said. "We don't know what type of information they're gathering. We don't know where that information is stored. We don't know who has access to that information. If judges are being asked to sign warrants to use this information, we don't know how much scrutiny those judges are applying. We don't know what those judges who are being asked to sign warrants are told. If they're actually told, 'We're using stingrays and here's what we're asking it for.' Because in other jurisdictions we've seen that they're given very little information."
When the I-Team obtained this documentation from Raleigh police on Stingrays in 2015, then police spokesperson Jim Sugrue wrote: "The department's use of the device is in accordance with all applicable laws. In addition, I can say that, contrary to misconceptions, the cell site emulator does not allow its users to see individual cell phone numbers or listen to cell phone calls. In every incident involving the equipment - except those relating to verified exigent circumstances, typically involving a life being at stake - a court order is obtained based upon probable cause that is sworn to before a superior court judge. The court orders apply only to a phone or phones that have been specifically connected to an investigation or circumstance, and only information related to the phone(s) covered by the order is retained."
Sugrue also directed us to the state laws governing the secrecy around the technology: N.C.G.S. 132-1.4, 132-1.7 and U.S.C. 482.
"Always remember," Harrison said, as we were wrapping up our interview, "what we're doing is for the people. If I were doing anything illegal, I'd want you and everybody else to be on my case but I'm above board. And until someone tells me differently in the legal profession, I'm going to continue to use them."
But for many critics, the problem isn't a mistrust of Sheriff Donnie Harrison; it's a mistrust of a system in which someone has to say, 'Trust me.'
"There are real question about whether a technology that soaks up innocent people's data can be used constitutionally," Meno said. "We all have a right to privacy; especially if we're not suspected of a crime. And if a judge has not given police permission to track us this way, we should be really concerned."
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