A reporter in Tuscon, Arizona has been denied access to public records related to the use of stingrays, also known as cellphone trackers, under Arizona’s public records act.
In a ruling, a local judge said it would not be in the ‘best interests of the state’ to disclose the training manuals and related material from the Tuscan Police Department on how police use a device called the ‘StingRay II’ to locate target cellphones and their respective users.
The devices are used by federal and law enforcement agencies to sweep up cell data of targets, intercept text messages, voice calls, and other details. However, security and privacy advocates have criticized the agencies for using these devices to gather data of innocent individuals nearby who are clueless that their data is being collected.
Douglas Metcalf, the Pima County Superior Court Judge, stated that the public records request filed by freelance reporter Beau Hodai would provide criminals the knowledge on how to circumvent the devices, reports the Arizona Daily Star.
Law enforcement and Harris Corp. (the manufacturer) have been silent about how exactly the stingray works, and how it’s acquired and used.
Just a month ago, local Baltimore prosecutors dropped key evidence against stingray use in a robbery case rather than allowing a detective to fully reveal how the device is being used.
American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona’s attorney Daniel Pochoda, who represents Hodai, disagreed on the judge’s decision but said no decision was made about whether to appeal. However, the public records request and the legal battle has produced some details.
In response, the city admitted that it used the device five times, and Lt. Kevin Hall acknowledged that the device was used without any warrant in all cases. Although the city produced records of four cases where the device was used, Metcalf said the reporter was not entitled to anything on the fifth case as it pertained to an ongoing investigation.
The current details reveal that the stingray relies on the concept that cellphones connect with nearby towers, which is necessary for incoming calls to be routed to the correct tower and ongoing calls are handled off from tower to tower as someone is traveling through an area. The secret stingray device mimics a cell tower, so every cellphone in its range connects to it.
The police can then use the collected data to locate the cellphone they are targeting, and the portability of the device makes it easy for police officers to carry it door to door and pinpoint the target phone’s location.
The judge said it was up to the court to decide whose interests hold sway. The city’s arguments were favored to the claims made by the ACLU that the public needs to be told if its privacy is being affected. He also acknowledged that ACLU and Hodai have “legitimate and important public purposes”, including whether privacy of innocent individuals is compromised. But Metcalf said the records provided by the city did not answer the question.
“Rather, the records show how to use the equipment,” Metcalf said, implying they are not subject to public disclosure.