Police Dept. Tapping Into Cell Phone Data

Monkey see, monkey do?

A report in this week’s Detroit Free Press outlining how local law enforcement is using technology in cell phones to track criminals — and anyone suspected of criminal activity — has privacy and civil rights advocates nervous.

The report, culled from public records obtained by USA Today and Gannett’s newspapers and TV stations, shows that law enforcement agencies, armed with new technologies, are tapping into cell phone data in real time, regardless of whether the user is a target on an investigation.

According to the Free Press article, the records, gathered from more than 125 police agencies in 33 states, reveal: 

• About one in four law-enforcement agencies have used a tactic known as a tower dump, which gives police data about the identity, activity and location of any phone that connects to the targeted cell phone towers over a set span of time, usually an hour or two. A typical dump covers multiple towers and wireless providers, and can net information from thousands of phones.

• At least 25 police departments own a Stingray, a suitcase-size device that costs as much as $400,000 and acts as a fake cell tower. The system, typically installed in a vehicle so it can be moved into any neighborhood, tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeds data to police. In some states, the devices are available to any local police department via state surveillance units. The federal government funds most of the purchases, via anti-terror grants.

• Thirty-six more police agencies refused to say whether they’ve used either tactic. Most denied public records requests, arguing that criminals or terrorists could use the information to thwart important crime-fighting and surveillance techniques.

Several Michigan police departments declined to talk to the Free Press or Metro Times about their use of cell phone tracking. According to the Freep, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office purchased a Stingray, but refused requests for comment from both the Freep and the Metro Times

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