Police records obtained by the Daily Dot reveal in unprecedented detail how the Obama administration enables law enforcement to suppress information about controversial phone-surveillance technology used by police throughout the United States.
The documents, which link the purchase of so-called Stingray devices to various North Carolina state and local police agencies, include a fill-in-the-blank warrant drafted by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and intended for use by state and local police that extends the veil of secrecy over law enforcement’s Stingray use.
The records, originally acquired by Working Narratives under North Carolina public records law and shared with Daily Dot reporters, also offer new specifics about the capabilities of Stingrays bought by police in North Carolina from Harris Corporation, a leading U.S. manufacturer of cell-site simulators, and the company behind the original “StingRay” procured by the Pentagon and various intelligence agencies more than two decades ago. The North Carolina agencies referenced by the documents include the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office; the Wilmington Police Department; and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, an agency that reports directly to Gov. Patrick L McCrory (R).
A batch of internal emails also obtained by the Daily Dot show police debating tactics to keep certain officers away from the witness stand, as well as discussing with a U.S. Secret Service employee the federal government’s efforts to prevent disclosures about these closely guarded surveillance tools, which are used to pinpoint the location of a targeted individual through the interception of cellphone signals.
U.S. attorneys have portrayed the Stingray—the colloquial term for a “cell-site simulator”— as an invaluable law enforcement tool, one that aids in complex narcotics investigations, kidnapping cases, and fugitive apprehension efforts. The government has argued against the disclosure of any information related to Stingrays, stating that it would pose “significant risks to effective law enforcement, and ultimately the safety of the public and the national security of the United States.” The government also requires non-disclosure agreements for police departments that obtain them.
Legal experts, however, say that Department of Justice has purposefully crafted a template for police Stingray warrants that obscures critical details about the device’s operational capabilities from the judges who authorize their use. Multiple civil- and digital-rights organizations claim the language applied in the warrants effectively downplays the most intrusive feature of simulated cell-site technology: jamming the cellphone signals of dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent bystanders while collecting information about them.