The Tacoma Police Department apparently has bought — and quietly used for six years — controversial surveillance equipment that can sweep up records of every cellphone call, text message and data transfer up to a half a mile away.
You don’t have to be a criminal to be caught in this law enforcement snare. You just have to be near one and use a cellphone.
Known as Stingray, the device — small enough to be carried in a car — tricks cellphones into thinking it’s a cell tower and draws in their information.
News that the city was using the surveillance equipment surprised City Council members, who approved an update for a device last year, and prosecutors, defense attorneys and even judges, who in court deal with evidence gathered using the surveillance equipment.
“If they use it wisely and within limits, that’s one thing,” said Ronald Culpepper, the presiding judge of Pierce County Superior Court, when informed of the device Tuesday. “I would certainly personally have some concerns about just sweeping up information from non-involved and innocent parties — and to do it with a whole neighborhood? That’s concerning.”
For years, a growing number of local law enforcement agencies have used the surveillance devices to track a cell signal to deduce a subject’s location, who he communicates with, for how long and how often.
The only reason it even was learned about was a Pierce County Sheriff’s department employee questioned a billing statement, where the city as charging the county a “Sharing Fee” for the operation.
“The Police Department appears to have updated its equipment last year with money authorized by a City Council whose members now say they didn’t know what they were buying.
“I’ve got to find out what I voted on before I comment,” Councilman David Boe said Monday. “This is new information.”
The devices are indiscriminate in the information they collect, and that bothers civil libertarians.”