FCC Complaint: Baltimore Police reaking law with use of stingray phone trackers

This article originally appeared on The Baltimore Sun.

By Ian Duncan, Baltimore Sun

Civil rights groups complained to the FCC Tuesday over the Baltimore Police Department‘s use of the cell phone tracking technology known as stingray, alleging that the way police use it interferes with emergency calls and is racially discriminatory.

The complaint argues that the police department doesn’t have a proper license to use the devices and is in violation of federal law. It calls on regulators at the Federal Communications Commission to step in and formally remind law enforcement agencies of the rules.

“The public is relying on the Commission to carry out its statutory obligation to do so, to fulfill its public commitment to do so, and to put an end to widespread network interference caused by rampant unlicensed transmissions made by BPD and other departments around the country,” the groups say in the complaint.

The case is being brought by Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

The use of stingrays, also known as cell site simulators, was long shrouded in secrecy and many details about their use is still not publicly known. The devices work by imitating a cell phone tower so that nearby phones connect to them instead of the normal network, allowing police to gather information such as the location of a handset.

Police in Baltimore acknowledged in court last year that they had used the devices thousands of times to investigate crimes ranging from violent attacks to the theft of cellphones. Investigators had been concealing the technology from judges and defense lawyers and after the revelations Maryland’s second highest court ruled that police should get a warrant before using a Stingray.

Neil Grace, a spokesman for the FCC, said the commission was reviewing the complaint. “The commission expects state and local law enforcement to work through the appropriate legal processes to use these devices,” he said.

The police department declined to comment citing the “pending litigation.”

Laura Moy, a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s law school who is representing the groups, said the complaint is being lodged against Baltimore Police because of the evidence of its prolific use of the devices.

“It seems quite likely that the Baltimore Police Department makes the heaviest use of this technology of any police department in the country,” Moy said.

Exactly what impact Stingrays have on cell phone usage is not fully publicly known but the complaint cites government documents and news accounts to allege that they disrupt calls and could prevent callers reaching 911. The interference from a single device could affect several city blocks, the complaint alleges.

Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, said there is good evidence that the devices interrupt cell phone service. In some configurations they mobile block data connections in order to force a phone to use a less secure connection, he said, and in other cases seem to block calls outright.

Because the devices have been hidden from public view, Soghoian said, it has been difficult for communities that are suffering from the disruptions to understand what is happening and hold the police accountable.

“If you can’t make calls, it’s not like your phone is going to pop up with a message saying sorry the Baltimore PD is using a stingray right now,” he said. “It just doesn’t work.”

What’s more, the complaint argues, “these disruptions of the cellphone network—including of emergency calls—disproportionately harm the residents of Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods.”

The groups argue that surveillance using the devices also undermines people’s free speech rights and describe the use of Stingrays as an electronic form of the intrusive police practices described in the scathing Justice Department report on the police department’s pattern of civil rights violations.

“The problem of radicalized surveillance is particularly pronounced in Baltimore, where BPD’s racially biased policing is clearly reflected in its racially biased deployment of [cell site] simulators,” the groups say in the complaint.

Congress Recognizes the Benefits of Lifeline Mobile Broadband Access

This week, the House of Representatives sent a message to the nation supporting easier access to the Internet using mobile phone technology for low-income households. It sent this message by rejecting H.R. 5525, the End Taxpayer Funded Cell Phones Act, introduced late last week by U.S. Representative Austin Scott, Republican of Georgia.


The bill, ostensibly aimed at reducing fraud, would have expressly prohibited funding of cellphones via universal support.
While Congressman Scott’s intentions to combat fraud in the Lifeline program is commendable, denying affordable access to millions of underserved consumers is not wise. It’s uneconomical to prevent consumers from participating in the digital economy via the use of mobile devices.

The members of Congress who voted against this bill should be commended for their vision and support of a program that enables accessible mobile broadband by low-income households.

Burner Phone Bill Would Violate Privacy

This article originally appeared on Opposing Views.

There’s a scene in the seminal police procedural show “The Wire” when Baltimore’s detectives get schooled on burners.

Detective Kima Greggs, played by the excellent Sonja Sohn, is sitting in her unmarked car with Bubbles, a heroin addict who’s also Kima’s confidential informant. Bubbles produces a cell phone from his pocket, presses the call button, holds the phone up to his ear, then frowns and tosses the phone out of the car window.

“You too?” Kima asks. “What the [expletive] is up with these phones? I’ve been seeing kids throw them away all day. You’ve got cash like that to waste?”

Bubbles shakes his head and licks his lips.

“They’re laying all over, man,” he tells Kima. “Sometimes you get lucky and find minutes on them. Burners, Kima.”


In the show, the detectives realize the notorious Barksdale drug gang is using burners — cheap, disposable cell phones loaded with prepaid minutes — to avoid wiretaps and make it more difficult for police to track them.

That was 2004. Sixteen years later, a California congresswoman is treating burners like cutting-edge tech, and claiming they’re used almost exclusively by criminals, to push a bill that would require customers to present ID when purchasing burners.

The bill, dubbed the Closing the Pre-Paid Mobile Device Security Gap Act of 2016 by its sponsor, Democratic State Rep. Jackie Speier of San Francisco, would deputize retailers by forcing them to collect identifying information about the buyer “and share that information with the cellular provider for that individual device.”

Speier claims it’s a necessary step to prevent terrorists, crime lords and human traffickers from duping investigators.

Speier’s proposed legislation is unconstitutional and invasive.

First, let’s get the obvious truth out of the way: Americans have good, legitimate reasons for using burners. Some people use them because they don’t require contracts. For others, especially the nation’s poor, burners are one of the few ways people can get their own cell phones without credit checks.

Others use them to protect their own privacy. That’s their right. There’s nothing in the constitution — and no legal precedent in the history of judicial decisions — that says a technology should be regulated, or privacy violated, simply because its existence is inconvenient for law enforcement.

As The New York Times’ Jim Dwyer noted in a 2012 column, burners are also used by whistleblowers and media sources who wish to remain anonymous.

“There are reporters in New York who carry a half-dozen prepaid cellphones, loaded with minutes purchased in cash,” Dwyer wrote. “The numbers are not registered to a real person, nor do they have to be under current law. They are peace of mind for confidential sources who have something to say but don’t want to make calls to a phone associated with a reporter or a news organization.”

Secondly, it’s disingenuous to say that police and the feds can’t track or tap burners. They’ve been doing it for years. The National Security Agency has software that analyzes network traffic, call times and contacts to track people who switch between burners, according to documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

A little detective legwork can easily reveal the owner of a burner, as security blog B3RN3D points out — all the police have to do is pull security camera footage from retailers. It’s also easy for law enforcement to triangulate the location of a burner device by using information from cell phone towers, as well as law enforcement “honeypots” that masquerade as legitimate cell phone towers, but exist for the purpose of collecting network information.

“If you think the government is after you, there’s really not much a burner phone is going to help you with,” B3RN3D notes.

Speier’s proposed legislation isn’t the first time a politician has tried to make it easier for law enforcement to track burners. Similar legislation has been proposed — and shot down — several times over the years.

But like any good politician, Speier knows that it’s easier to slip legislation through when the public and fellow lawmakers are emotional. To that end, she’s invoked the March 22 terrorist attacks in Belgium, as well as the earlier Paris attacks and even 9/11, to bolster her argument for approving the bill.

Passing legislation on emotion is like grocery shopping while hungry. It’s not a good idea, and leads to often regrettable decisions. But with privacy in the balance, the stakes are higher. Let’s hope Speier’s fellow lawmakers recognize the legislation for the bad idea it is, and reject this attempt at further infringing on privacy.