It took the curiosity of a skinny, fidgeting 27-year-old to force the Chicago Police Department to admit they purchased controversial surveillance technology. The department, legally boxed into a corner over its use of a device known as the StingRay, finally admitted to acquiring the cell-phone tracking product last summer, six years after actually buying the thing. The watchdog work came not from a newspaper or any other media outlet in the city, but Freddy Martinez, an information technology worker who oversees websites for a private company from a downtown office building.
Martinez is now in the midst of his second lawsuit against the Chicago police over their refusal to disclose how they actually use the StingRay. These types of devices can capture, track, and monitor cell phone data, even without judicial oversight. Over a burger and whiskey-ginger at a bar in Chicago's Loop district, Martinez described the relatively benign circumstances that led him to become a plaintiff against the Chicago police, in the process costing city taxpayers a bit more than $120,000 in fees to defend the law enforcement agency.
"I was interested in it from a technological standpoint," he said of the device. Martinez, who fiddled with his phone throughout our conversation and expressed a preference for a new job that requires little human interaction, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in June of last year asking Chicago police to hand over records regarding the device—if they even existed.
"They basically ignored it," Martinez told me.
StingRays can pick up text messages about where to meet for dinner as easily as they can the location of the next major drug buy.
The StingRay and its sister device, the KingFish, are products of the Harris Corporation, which did not respond to a request for comment for this story. The devices mimic cell towers, allowing police to listen in on and read communications from suspects' phones. But the high-tech surveillance toys are capable of much more than honing in on one or two bad guys police want to catch talking about criminal activity—they can also pick up all cell communications within a certain radius.
So this gives them the power to launch an NSA-style surveillance program on a micro level. And while the NSA's clandestine surveillance of communications were initiated with the intention of preventing crimes and acts of terrorism, privacy activists have raised red flags that the nationwide surveillance program is monitoring good, law abiding Americans like you and me. The same goes for police use of StingRays, which can pick up text messages about where to meet for dinner as easily as they can the location of the next major drug buy.
Martinez, a Chicago native, was miffed when Chicago police ignored his FOIA request. With the help of an attorney friend, he eventually sued. After repeatedly denying that they'd even purchased the devices, Martinez's lawsuit forced the cops to own up. In a trove of documents released as part of a settlement for that lawsuit, police confirmed they'd purchased a StingRay upgrade in 2008 at a cost of $65,000. Martinez estimates the department has spent more than $300,000 total on the technology, according to documents in his possession, which includes upgrades (from 2G to 4G, for instance), training, and maintenance.
Martinez told me that funding, unlike the $120,000 in tax dollars to defend against his lawsuit, may come from a somewhat more nefarious source: drug dealers.
He believes police purchased StingRays with so-called "1505" funds, money seized in raids on drug dealers and organized crime syndicates. This, Martinez and other privacy advocates contend, is a way for police to essentially launder the money used to purchase devices that many claim regularly violate the constitutional rights of people who aren't even suspects in a crime.
"There was no City Council approval for this," he said about the department's purchase of the devices, suggesting there is no line in the city budget for that year letting public officials and citizens in on what became a four-year secret. In fact, many of the council members may not even have known that the technology was being used until news of Martinez's settlement with the department broke. But that was just the beginning.
Police and prosecutors have at times purposefully avoided mentioning the device to judges, who provide crucial oversight in the investigation of crimes.
Martinez's second, active lawsuit is intended to make Chicago police explain the process by which they secure approval for use of the devices. Traditionally, seizure of cell data phone data—used to track a drug dealer or a murder suspect, for instance—has to go through an approval process. First, police have to convince prosecutors that they have enough evidence to go after someone for a crime. Those prosecutors must then convince a judge of the same, and finally, that judge must approve a subpoena requiring cell companies to hand over data, or a search warrant allowing police to seize electronic devices and process them for evidence. Often, that entire process is side-stepped when police have access to StingRays. In fact, according to the ACLU, police and prosecutors have at times purposefully avoided mentioning the device to judges, who provide crucial oversight in the investigation of crimes.
"We have due process for a reason," Martinez said.
In addition to privacy and constitutional concerns—and there are many; just ask Cyrus Farivar over at ArsTechnica, who has been tracking the use of StingRays for some time—there is a glaring contradiction between how Chicago police have addressed the devices, and how they're used in real life.
"They claim this is military-grade technology," Martinez said of police. "Yet they don't have records of use? That seems strange to me."
Martinez's second lawsuit calls for police to provide these allegedly non-existent records, which, of course, he doesn't think is likely. The Chicago Police Department, recalling their initial denial that StingRays had even been purchased, has claimed there are no records for their use—when they've been checked out to different officers or units, or how they've been used to investigate crimes. StingRays didn't officially exist in the department's arsenal until last summer, and now the law enforcement agency claims it doesn't even internally track usage of the devices.
A request for comment from the Chicago Police Department went without response, but considering the ongoing nature of the litigation, that's not at all surprising. Regardless, thanks to the work of Martinez and others, we know the department's use of spying technology goes back as far as the protests surrounding a 2012 NATO summit in the city. And StingRays may have been used more recently, as the Black Lives Matter movement took hold in Chicago.
The Chicago Police Department paid a total of $321,800 for the StingRay technology.
Law enforcement agencies across the country have slowly begun opening up about their use of StingRays and similar devices. Often, that transparency has come only as a result of court cases. In other instances, reporters and media outlets have fought to make police use of the devices public. The Harris Corporation has tried to keep their profitable technology out of the news by having law enforcement agencies sign non-disclosure agreements (not that the cops have been particularly open anyway). The company even went as far as asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to block the release of a user manual for the StingRay and KingFish devices, saying the document contained "'trade secrets' and information about 'law enforcement techniques.'"
Chicago police, specifically the three top-ranking members of the department's Bureau of Organized Crime, agreed to their own non-disclosure agreement with the Harris Corporation. In a letter dated January 17, 2012, from Sgt. James Washburn to his superiors, Cmdr. Joseph Gorman and Chief Nicholas J. Roti, the sergeant laid out how a new version of the Harris Corporation's cell-tracking technology would be made available to the department.
"Upon execution of the attached non-disclosure agreement, Harris Corporation will issue a trial edition of the new platform for our use and testing," Washburn wrote before laying out the eventual price tag. "The cost of this new platform, if the testing goes as planned, is approximately $21,000."
While it's unclear if that purchase was ever made, other buys are contained in the documents obtained through Martinez's lawsuit. They include the purchase of a StingRay upgrade in 2009 for which the department was billed $65,000. A "software package" came at a cost of $22,000, according to the documents. Various other purchases were included on that invoice for a total of $164,500. Another invoice shows the department paid $157,300 for a KingFish device and accompanying software and hardware, bringing the total paid for the technology to $321,800.
Washburn, the Bureau of Organized Crime sergeant who processed invoices and purchase orders between the Florida-based Harris Corporation and the Chicago Police Department, didn't respond to a request for comment. The non-disclosure agreement between police and Harris was crafted by the FBI, Martinez's documents show. And some of the $120,000 charged to taxpayers to defend against the IT worker's first lawsuit comes from consultations between lawyers representing the Chicago Police Department and administrators with the FBI and the Department of Justice. Taxpayers were essentially billed so one government agency could speak with another, according to documents obtained by Martinez.
For Martinez, simple questions started this whole ordeal. Did Chicago police purchase these devices? Apparently so. Do they have records of usage of the self-proclaimed "military-grade" technology? They do not, police have claimed. Not a single member of the department has come forward to explain how the technology is employed to fight crime—with one exception.
"Investigations of kidnappings, murders, and other serious crimes" require use of the devices, the Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this month.
The officials responsible for explaining why law enforcement needs the StingRay and KingFish in its arsenal of crime-fighting tools?
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