The Charlotte City Council needs to ask substantive questions about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police use of surveillance equipment that collects data from thousands of cell phone users at a time, even if those people are not targets of an investigation.
The council also needs to ask how a $357,000 upgrade of this technology was approved two years ago without public discussion – and apparently without the knowledge of at least a few council members.
The equipment, known by names including StingRay, Hailstorm and TriggerFish, taps into mobile devices and laptops by mimicking a cell tower, then collects information such as serial numbers, location and call and text history. Police across the country have purchased the technology, often with federal grants designed to protect cities from terrorist attacks.
Cities, however, are applying the equipment to much broader purposes. CMPD has been using some form of the technology for eight years, apparently on a weekly basis to track suspects in violent felonies, kidnappings and missing persons cases, the Observer’s Fred Clasen-Kelly reported Sunday.
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CMPD, which seeks court orders from judges before using the equipment, does not capture the voice content of phone calls, Senior Assistant City Attorney Judith Emken told the Observer.
Beyond that, information about the data collection is scarce. We don’t know how many of the court orders rise to the level of search warrants, which require probable cause. We don’t know who has access to the data. We don’t know if the data can be used later or helps launch unintended investigations.
The reason the public knows so little? Federal officials have instructed local law enforcement not to disclose information about the equipment. Judges have sealed the court orders allowing its use. Incredibly, police don’t even reveal in court cases that StingRay-type devices were used in investigations.
Such extraordinary secrecy should be troubling, and City Council members who expressed concern this wek are right to want more transparency. They will surely receive pushback; law enforcement officials across the country have said criminals could use details about the equipment to thwart future surveillance.
That’s not sufficient reason, however, to trample on privacy concerns. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that police need warrants to search the cell phones of people they arrest. The justices noted that cell phones now contain a digital record of their users’ lives – and that such information deserves the same kind of protection from searches as items inside a home. If police want that information, the Court said, they can get a warrant.
How do searches using StingRay-type equipment differ? We’re not sure, but the public deserves to know. If those questions can’t be answered, the program should be discontinued.
The council has an additional question to ask: How did the $357,000 request land on a consent agenda, a device that allows minor requests to be approved in bulk by the council? Council members need to determine who placed the technology request there, and they need to explain to the public why they approved the equipment – and tacitly approved the data collection technique – without public debate.