Slip of an Officer’s Tongue Suggests Police Are Monitoring #BlackLivesMatter Protesters’ Cell Phones

Are Chicago police using ‘stingrays’ against activists?

Joel Handley December 19, 2014

Protester Page May tweeted this picture on December 4 and wrote, "Wtf is this? It keeps flowing the protest. And It messes up my phone when it drives by." Twitter erupted with suspicion that the van contained a "stingray" cell phone surveillance device. (Twitter)

We Sur­veil and Pro­tect” is an ongo­ing inves­ti­ga­tion into the tech­niques and tech­nol­o­gy that the Chica­go Police Depart­ment employs to spy on activists, unions and heav­i­ly policed com­mu­ni­ties of color.

There are numerous accounts by media and the ACLU of police hiding or misrepresenting the use of stingrays from judges, even when they used the devices to locate and prosecute suspects.

A police officer’s blun­der appears to have shed a thin ray of light on one of the Chica­go Police Department’s most close­ly held secrets.

Dur­ing a Black Fri­day Boy­cott march, one of many Fer­gu­son-relat­ed demon­stra­tions held that week, a Chica­go police offi­cer radioed the city’s fusion cen­ter,” where the city police col­lab­o­rate with the FBI and the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, among many oth­er agencies.

Offi­cer: Yeah, one of the girls, she’s kind of an orga­niz­er here, she’s been on her phone a lot. You guys pick­ing up any infor­ma­tion, uh, where they’re going, possibly?”

Crime Pre­ven­tion and Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter (CPIC): Yeah, we’re keep­ing an eye on it. We’ll let you know if we hear anything.”

A mem­ber of an online sub­cul­ture of police scan­ner enthu­si­asts caught the call as it came in on Chica­go City­wide 6 — the police band used for spe­cial events — and para­phrased it on Twit­ter. Pro­test­ers seized upon the infor­ma­tion, wide­ly shar­ing it online. Lat­er that week, Anony­mous pub­lished a video of the call and tran­script, dra­ma­tized with music and voiceover assur­ances from Pres­i­dent Oba­ma that the gov­ern­ment is not lis­ten­ing to cit­i­zens’ phone calls.

To activists, pri­va­cy advo­cates, and police observers who have sus­pect­ed for years that the CPD covert­ly steals data from cell phones through the use of so-called stingray devices, the officer’s request was a red flag.

StingRays—the brand name of a device made by the mil­i­tary equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­er Har­ris Cor­po­ra­tion, as well as a catch-all term for sim­i­lar devices — sim­u­late a cell tower’s radio sig­nal, prompt­ing near­by mobile phones, tablets and sim­i­lar wire­less devices to send the infor­ma­tion that would be trans­mit­ted to a tow­er. This includes: each phone’s unique iden­ti­fy­ing code, known as the Inter­na­tion­al Mobile Sub­scriber Iden­ti­ty (IMSI); the time, date, dura­tion and loca­tion of all calls made to and from the phone; meta­da­ta from text mes­sages and emails; and GPS loca­tion. In com­bi­na­tion with oth­er devices and soft­ware, stingrays can also allow real-time lis­ten­ing to cell calls.

The devices were used exclu­sive­ly by fed­er­al intel­li­gence agen­cies in the 1990s and ear­ly 2000s. But after Sep­tem­ber 11, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment began to let local law enforce­ment agen­cies acquire and use the devices. Many police depart­ments — includ­ing the Illi­nois State Police — bought stingrays with Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty grants with the pur­port­ed inten­tion of help­ing local author­i­ties pre­pare for ter­ror­ist attacks. Since 2002, DHS has giv­en more than $40 bil­lion to local agen­cies for a range of sur­veil­lance equip­ment and training.

For years, the Chica­go Police Depart­ment denied hav­ing any stingray tech­nol­o­gy. Only in response to a Sep­tem­ber 2014 Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act (FOIA) law­suit by local pri­va­cy advo­cate Fred­dy Mar­tinez did the CPD release pur­chase records indi­cat­ing it has owned stingray devices since at least 2009.

The released doc­u­ments—two invoic­es and a price quote from the Har­ris Cor­po­ra­tion — reveal that the CPD bought a StingRay II Upgrade, an Amber­jack anten­na, a Har­poon sig­nal ampli­fi­er and asso­ci­at­ed soft­ware, at a total cost of $152,500.

The pur­chase of the StingRay II Upgrade, which con­verts the first-gen­er­a­tion StingRay to work on new­er cell net­works, strong­ly sug­gests that the CPD already owned an orig­i­nal StingRay. These ear­ly mod­els are the size of a large brief­case and are often kept in law enforce­ment vehi­cles to allow for quick, mobile use.

The Amber­jack is a disc-shaped anten­na that allows the pin­point­ing of indi­vid­ual phones with­in the mass of loca­tion data from hun­dreds or thou­sands of cell sig­nals, while the Har­poon boosts the stingray’s sig­nal to encom­pass cell phones in a larg­er radius.

Mar­tinez want­ed to know more. Rep­re­sent­ed by Matt Top­ic at the civ­il rights law firm Loevy and Loevy, he filed a fol­low-up FOIA request and law­suit demand­ing the dis­clo­sure of how and when Chica­go police have used stingray tech­nol­o­gy, as well as infor­ma­tion con­cern­ing the stor­age and shar­ing of the data col­lect­ed, and the con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty of the practice.

The CPD’s response to the sec­ond request is emblem­at­ic of the secre­cy sur­round­ing the use of stingrays by police across the coun­try. The depart­ment hired Drinker Bid­dle & Reath, one of the largest law firms in the Unit­ed States. In response to Martinez’s records request, the firm claimed that releas­ing such records, to the extent they may exist,” would vio­late the Home­land Secu­ri­ty Act and the Arms Export Con­trol Act, and infringe upon the Har­ris Corporation’s pro­pri­etary infor­ma­tion and trade secrets.

Dur­ing sim­i­lar dis­putes else­where in the coun­try, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice has instruct­ed local police agen­cies to deny records requests and con­tin­ue to con­ceal infor­ma­tion about stingrays. Har­ris now requires police depart­ments to sign non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments before buy­ing or using the equip­ment. And there are numer­ous accounts by media and the ACLU of police hid­ing or mis­rep­re­sent­ing the use of stingrays from judges, even when they used the devices to locate and pros­e­cute suspects.

With­in such a con­text, one can begin to under­stand how a CPD officer’s appar­ent mis­take at the Black Fri­day march — ask­ing on an open radio chan­nel what the fusion cen­ter could gath­er from a protester’s cell phone — could become such a tan­ta­liz­ing piece of information.

Imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing his request from CPIC, the offi­cer, referred to as Mobile 1800” on the radio, was relayed a mes­sage from Car 41,” who had ear­li­er direct­ed oth­er police offi­cers patrolling the march.

Car 41: Yeah, Mobile 1800, I want to give you a call on your cell.

[Silent pause.]

Dis­patch­er: 1800, did you copy?

Offi­cer: No, I didn’t.

Dis­patch­er: Car 41’s gonna give you a call on your cell phone.

Whether Car 41 was call­ing to share eaves­dropped intel­li­gence or per­haps to chew out the loose-lipped offi­cer, is just one mys­tery among many that sur­round the police’s use of stingray technology.

A CPD spokesper­son told Chicago’s NPR-affil­i­ate WBEZ that the device was not used dur­ing the demon­stra­tions. But then, with all the poten­tial muz­zles in place — from the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, from Har­ris, from the CPD itself — who’s to say what a denial means?

Tips or expe­ri­ences with high-tech police sur­veil­lance can be sent to joel­han­d­ley <at> gmail​.com.

We Sur­veil and Pro­tect” is a project of the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing.

Joel Han­d­ley, a for­mer assis­tant edi­tor at In These Times, is a Chica­go-based inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist and free­lance editor.
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