Florida judge sides with ACLU, testimony unsealed on police use of ‘stingray’ devices

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recorded an important win on Tuesday after a judge in Tallahassee, Fla., sided with the advocacy group and decided to unseal a full transcript of testimony on the police use of “stingray” devices, equipment typically used by law enforcement to track cell phones.

The ACLU filed a motion to unseal the transcript in February after learning that police might have used stingray devices without a warrant, but the State responded by requesting that certain portions of the transcript remain sealed, Nathan Wessler, staff attorney with ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, wrote in a Tuesday post.

The judge ordered the unsealing of the entire transcript on Tuesday, not long after the ACLU filed an emergency motion, according to Wessler, who told on Wednesday that the decision goes a long way towards exposing the invasive nature of stingray devices.

Stingrays work by emulating cell towers and registering devices in the vicinity, which enables users to obtain phone data and track devices, according to Wessler, who explained that police in this case used two devices, without a warrant, to canvass an area until a target phone was discovered.

“Law enforcement has to remember, when they spy on people with these devices and try to use it as evidence, attorneys will raise constitutional defenses and that evidence might be thrown out,” Wessler said. “[They] must get a warrant first.”

Stingray devices have been used by the federal government for as many as 20 years, but state and local law enforcement only adopted the technology within the past decade, Wessler said, adding the official equipment can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Manufacturers of official stingray equipment only sell to registered law enforcement, Wessler said, but he explained that security researchers have been able to build their own stingray devices using off-the-shelf parts – and only for a few thousand dollars.

“The larger goal is to make sure there are effective and strong regulations in place on the use of these devices,” Wessler said. “One way to achieve this is to make sure the public and judges have adequate information on how stingrays are being used. It's crucial that judges are requiring officers to get a warrant before using [these devices].”

In Tallahassee, as a result of earlier public records requests, the chief of police will be reevaluating policies with regards to the use of stingray devices, Wessler said.

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