Lifting the veil on surveillance

Unanswered questions remain about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s use of cellphone surveillance in its investigations, but at least one truth has emerged: Charlotte, unlike other cities, has been at least somewhat forthcoming on the issue.

This week, the Observer’s Fred Clasen-Kelly reported on the unsealing of hundreds of records involving cellphone tracking, including the most extensive disclosures to date about CMPD’s use of a powerful technology that collects information from mobile devices by mimicking a cell tower. CMPD has been using the technology, commonly known as Stingray, but like other local and federal law enforcement agencies, police and city officials here have tried their best to keep its use secret from the public.

City officials and Police Chief Rodney Monroe decided, however, not to fight the unsealing of some court documents the Observer and WBTV requested involving cellphone tracking. That’s commendable, because the applications and court orders begin to provide important insights into a constitutionally questionable police tool.

Among those insights are two of note:

First, CMPD sought court permission to use cellphone surveillance more than 500 times since 2010. That’s an average of twice a week, a frequency that surprised some civil liberties experts.

Also, despite CMPD and city officials indicating that the cell-site simulator technology would only be used in investigations involving serious felonies, some of the records show surveillance being used in lower-level cases. The records are unclear about which cases the Stingray helped, but in one case, the advanced technology seemed to be used for a stolen cellphone.

Regardless, the city needs to be specific about the boundaries it sets with cell-site simulator use. What constitutes a “serious” crime or felony? Are there procedures in place to protect against abuse of those guidelines, if they exist?

There’s still more for CMPD to release to the public. The unsealed court files did not include cases from 2006-2010, because unlike later cases, court officials gave the records back to the police to put with their investigative files. CMPD needs to release those court records.

Police also should be clearer about when the cell-site simulator technology was used, so that defense attorneys and others can determine if investigations were properly conducted. Already, the current release has prompted the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s office to say that it will review the cases and determine if the technology was used to win convictions or merely catch subjects.

If it’s the former, documents need to be shared with defense attorneys. It’s what should have been happening all along. The police should have access to modern crimefighting tools, but they should be responsible, and transparent, about it.