Detective reveals expansive use of StingRay surveillance in Baltimore

Reuters / Zoran Milich

Reuters / Zoran Milich

The Baltimore Police Department used controversial cell phone surveillance tools more than 4,000 times since 2007, an officer revealed this week, but has stayed largely silent on the topic until now upon orders from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In a rare admission, Detective Emmanuel Cabreja testified in
court on Wednesday that the city has deployed “cell site
simulators,” including the increasingly prevalent StingRay
device, 4,300 times during the last eight years. According to the
Baltimore Sun, Cabreja said he personally
used that tool, and another known as a ‘Hailstorm’, upwards of
800 times during only a two-year span.

When activated, portable machines like the StingRay mimic cell
towers in order to trick mobile devices within a given range to
send over data, giving police geolocation details and other
information for upwards of thousands of phones in a single
instance. Law enforcement agencies have increasingly relied on
cell site simulators in recent years for the device’s ability to
narrow in on suspects during criminal investigations.

Privacy advocates have taken aim at that vast surveillance power
and are now raising new questions following Cabreja’s admission
this week that the FBI is trying tooth and nail to keep the use
of the devices under wraps.

In court on Wednesday, Cabreja produced a nondisclosure agreement
between the FBI and the Baltimore PD that explicitly orders
authorities not to reveal information about the cell surveillance
tools in its arsenal. Existence of the NDA in itself is not
particularly new, but the details contained therein provide a
previously unseen look at the federal government’s efforts to
ensure as much information as possible about the spy devices stay

“Does this document instruct you to withhold evidence from
the state’s attorney and Circuit Court, even upon court order to
the detective was asked during this week’s
hearing, according to the Sun.

“Yes,” Cabreja reportedly responded.

Indeed, a copy of the document published by the Sun on Wednesday
orders the BPD not to “distribute, disseminate or otherwise
disclose any information
” about the tools to the public, and
not even to other law enforcement agencies without the expressed
written approval of the FBI. According to the bureau,
disclosure of this information could result in the FBI’s
inability to protect the public from terrorism and other criminal

Even in legal proceedings, according to the document, police are
barred from discussing the tool per the FBI’s orders. The BPD and
the Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore “shall not,
in any civil or criminal proceeding, use or provide any
information concerning
” the equipment, its software, manuals
or related documentation beyond the evidentiary results obtained
through its use.

The document specifically says to leave information about the
devices absent from pre-trial matters, including search warrants,
affidavits, court orders and more without approval of the FBI,
and instructs the BPD and Maryland Attorney’s Office to seek
dismissal of any cases that might otherwise yield to disclosures
about the devices.

“This is a very expensive and very invasive technology
developed for military use, now used on the streets of
Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the
American Civil Liberties Union, told the Associated Press. “The public has a right
to know how taxpayer dollars are being spent, and if our
constitutional rights are being respected.”

According to the Sun, Cabreja met with the FBI last week ahead of
testifying and was “coached” on what to say in court.
Wednesday’s pre-trial hearing concerned the use of a cell site
simulator by the BPD to locate two men that were charged in 2013
with armed carjacking, armed robbery and theft, among other
charges, according to the paper. Ultimately, the police located
the men by honing in on a stolen cell phone using a ‘Hailstorm’,
an upgraded, more powerful version of the StingRay.

Previously, Ars Technica reported that police in Baltimore, Oakland
County, Michigan and Phoenix, Arizona, had separately acquired
Hailstorm systems in 2013. The devices are valued at $169.203
apiece, according to the website.

Earlier this week, documents released in western New York State
relevant to a StingRay lawsuit there revealed that authorities in
Erie County used the tool at least 47 times
between May 1, 2010 and October 3, 2014, and only once pursuant
to a court order. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement
previously acknowledged that its officers used the device about
1,800 times, and former US Judge Brian L. Owsley, a law professor
at Indiana Tech, told the Sun he was “blown away” by
Baltimore’s numbers.

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