Three Charlotte City Council members said Monday they want to know how CMPD uses a secret surveillance technology that gathers data from cellphones and other wireless devices belonging to crime suspects and innocent residents alike.
Two officials – council members Claire Fallon and John Autry – said they question whether it is legal for officers to collect information from citizens who are not suspected of committing crimes.
“You can’t make a move without someone watching you,” Fallon said. “It’s not American.”
Fallon is chairwoman of the council’s Community Safety Committee and said she would raise the issue during the panel’s next meeting.
The comments came in response to an Observer report Sunday that revealed the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department routinely uses portable equipment that imitates a cellphone tower and allows investigators to find out the serial numbers, location and other information about nearby phones, laptops and tablets that connect to a cellular network.
Officers use equipment, commonly known by names such as StingRay, Hailstorm or AmberJack, to locate suspects in violent felonies, kidnappings and missing person cases, according to documents obtained through an open records request.
Privacy groups nationwide say the surveillance is so invasive that it violates constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. They complain that details about the surveillance remain secret because the Obama administration and the manufacturer have ordered local police agencies not to disclose information.
On Monday, a spokesman for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union criticized Charlotte, saying officials had not responded to an open records request his group filed in June.
“The lack of public information is troubling,” Mike Meno said. “You can just drive around an area in a car and collect cellphone data. We have no information about how this data is shared. We need public debate before a technology this powerful is used.”
Charlotte City Council voted unanimously without debate in 2012 to spend about $357,000 to update the equipment for CMPD.
Some members now say they don’t remember the vote and do not know much about the surveillance.
Autry said he plans to meet with city attorneys.
“I am a Fourth Amendment kind of guy,” Autry said, referring to constitutional protections. “I have some pertinent questions that will spark some discussion.”
Council member LaWana Mayfield said she would also talk with city attorneys. Mayfield said she did not know about the surveillance technology before she was contacted by a reporter Monday.
The issue is concerning, she said, because since the Sept. 11 attacks “rights that have been taken for granted are being slowly eradicated.”
Senior Assistant City Attorney Judith Emken did not respond to questions on Monday. City Manager Ron Carlee said he could not talk because he was in a meeting.
Cellphones send signals to nearby towers whether they are in use or not. A device city officials call a cell site simulator tricks phones into electronically identifying themselves and transmitting data to police instead of the closest cell tower.
Privacy groups say the equipment is powerful enough to collect cellphone information from an entire apartment building. They claim it gives law enforcement the ability to gather voice, text and other data from phones.
Charlotte officials have refused to divulge details about the city’s equipment but did defend how CMPD uses its cellphone tracker.
CMPD does not capture the voice contents of phone calls, Emken has said. She said officers do not store data that is retrieved.
The department seeks court orders from judges before officers use the equipment during an investigation, she said.
Emken has said the devices are similar to “pen registers,” which meet a lower legal standard to obtain than search warrants. Pen registers trace signals from phones but do not capture their contents.