Until whistleblowers like Edward Snowden came out with information about massive government surveillance programs, many people were unaware of the many ways the government was watching their own citizens. Surveillance does not only happen at the federal level, even state and local agencies are using technology to track criminal suspects, often catching law-abiding citizens up in the mix. However, Alameda County will now be the first county in the state to restrict the use of a controversial cell phone surveillance tool known as Stingrays.
Stingrays are cellular phone surveillance devices, initially developed for the intelligence community, but have since been adopted by state and local law enforcement agencies. Stingrays mimic cellphone towers to connect with cellular phone and data devices in the area. Once connected, the stingray software can track the phone's movement, extract identifying information, and even intercept the content of voice and text communications. Stingrays are mobile, and can be mounted in police vehicles, or even carried by hand.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), stingrays are invasive, and while they track not only the suspect's cell phone, “they also gather information about the phones of countless bystanders who happen to be nearby.” The ACLU also claims to have uncovered evidence that law enforcement agencies are actively trying to conceal their use of stingrays, which is why they are seeking increased transparency from government use of such surveillance devices.
While the use of cell-site simulators have previously been used by Oakland police and other law enforcement department across the country with little to no oversight, Alameda County may be the first in California to respond to the public's concern over such broad surveillance technology. In a unanimous vote, the Board of Supervisors has approved District Attorney Nancy O'Malley's purchase of the stingray device. However, the use of the devices will now be regulated.
During the board meeting, the district attorney's office worked with privacy advocates, including the Oakland Privacy Working Group, to establish guidelines for the use of these surveillance devices. As a result of the compromise, the district attorney will produce annual reports to document use of stingray devices, including when, how and why they were used.
According to the district attorney, use of the brand-name Hailstorm stingray-type device will be managed by their office. Law enforcement will only be able to use Hailstorm after receiving approval for a search warrant. Additionally, the device will not be used to collect voice, text or email content from cell phones.
While Alameda County is the first in California to regulate the use of cell phone simulators, a new state law, SB 741, which will go into law on January 1st, will require law enforcement agencies to publish policies for protecting privacy, and local lawmakers must approve the policies before police will be able to use the technology. State Senator Jerry Hill, from San Mateo, has also introduced a new law that will similarly require law enforcement to get a search warrant before collecting data from stingrays.
You are constitutionally protected from unlawful searches, including searching your vehicle or your property. At the Gorelick Law Offices, attorney Lynn Gorelick has dedicated her legal career to defending people facing criminal charges in the East Bay. With over 30 years of criminal defense experience, Lynn Gorelick understands what it means to fight for you. Contact the local East Bay criminal defense attorney who will stand up for your rights.