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Florida law enforcement docs show widespread stingray use, secrecy

Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) under a FOIA request show how widespread the use of stingray devices is among Florida law enforcement agencies.

In a blog post, staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler at the ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, said “the documents paint a detailed picture of police using an invasive technology — one that can follow you inside your house — in many hundreds of cases and almost entirely in secret.” 

“Results should be troubling for anyone who cares about privacy rights, judicial oversight of police activities, and the rule of law," he added.

Concerned about the secretive use of the devices and their propensity to collect data beyond the scope of an individual suspect's phone, in 2014 the ACLU sent requests for records to 36 police and sheriff's departments in Florida.

The results, Wessler wrote, “should be troubling for anyone who cares about privacy rights, judicial oversight of police activities, and the rule of law.” The records show that Florida law enforcement has spent millions of dollars on the devices, also known as cell site simulators, and has used them in hundreds of investigations.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, whose $3 million in expenditures on stingrays was documented by the ACLU last year and which in a May 2014 email identified what Wessler called “a staggering 1,835 uses of cell site simulator equipment,”  has penned agreements with 11 law enforcement agencies to use its stingrays and share with other Florida law enforcement bodies.

While Miami-Dade noted thousands of dollars spent on purchasing the units from Florida-based stingray-maker Harris Corp. that were used in a mere 59 closed criminal cases (total number of cases likely range much higher) and the Pensacola Police Department provided the investigative files on five cases where it said it used the devices, by far the “most extensive information about a local agency's use of Stingrays on loan from the FDLE” came from the Tallahassee Police Department, which detailed more than 250 investigations using stingrays between September 2007 and February 2014, Wessler said.

Even more troubling, a good number of the investigations police either did not seek a court order to use the devices or requested a “low relevance” court order rather than a warrant based on probable cause. Of a sampling of judicial applications and orders requested by the TPD, not one mentioned the use of a stingray. 

“This suggests that judges weren't being fully informed about what they were approving,”  the ACLU attorney wrote.  

Nor were they mentioned in the investigative files on 11 TPD cases, which only allude on occasion to electronic surveillance, confidential intelligence and, in one case, an investigator named Corbitt who is the officer the ACLU previously identified as operating stingrays for the TPD.

Many of the ACLU requests went unanswered and “not a single department produced any policies or guidelines governing use of Stingrays or restricting how and when they could be deployed,” wrote Wessler, noting that might suggest “a lack of internal oversight.”

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