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Police in Washington, DC Are Using the Secretive 'Stingray' Cell Phone Tracking Tool

Documents obtained by VICE News show that DC police have been using a so-called Stingray device intended for counterterrorism to track common criminals.
Photo by Nicolas Rayomnd

Back in 2003, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in Washington, DC was awarded a $260,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to purchase surveillance technology called Stingray — a contraption the size of a suitcase that simulates a cell phone tower and intercepts mobile phone calls and text messages.

The rationale behind the DHS grant to MPD and other law enforcement agencies was to help them secure new antiterrorism technology from private corporations. But the grant fell a little short, because the MPD couldn't come up with the extra several thousands dollars it needed to train officers how to use and maintain Stingray — so the device sat unused in an "Electronic Surveillance Unit equipment vault" at the department for more than five years.


In 2008, the DC police decided to dust off and upgrade its Stingray tracking device after the department secured another federal grant. But officials appeared to no longer see it as a way to combat terrorism, fears of which had decreased significantly since 2003. Instead, they sought to use it for routine investigations involving drug trafficking and common criminals.

The NSA has revealed details about its exhaustive search of Edward Snowden's emails. Read more here.

The details of the MPD's use of Stingray have been shrouded in secrecy. Although there was suspicion the department was utilizing the technology, documentary evidence to support the notion never surfaced.

But through an open records request, VICE News obtained dozens of pages of purchase orders, invoices, and memos between the DC police department and Harris Corporation, the Florida-based defense contractor that manufactures Stingray, which confirms for the first time the technology is in use in DC.

A December 2008 memo sent to the DC chief of police and other top department officials by the commander of the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division provides insight into how the department intended to use the antiterrorism surveillance tool after it was brought out of storage. It has little to do with thwarting terrorism.

'If DC police are driving around with a Stingray device, they're likely capturing information about the locations and movements of members of Congress, cabinet members, foreign dignitaries, and all of the other people who congregate in the District.'


"The [redacted] will be used by MPD to track cellular phones possessed by criminal offenders and/or suspected terrorists by using wireless technology to triangulate the location of the phone," states the memo, whose subject line is, "Outside Training Request for Members of the Electronic Surveillance Unit and Members of the Homicide Branch to Attend [redacted]."

"The ability to [redacted] in the possession of criminals will allow MPD to track their exact movements, as well as pinpoint their current locations for rapid apprehension," the memo continues. "The procurement of this equipment will increase the number of MPD arrests for fugitives, drug traffickers, and violent offenders (robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, Homicide), while reducing the time it takes to locate dangerous offenders that need to be removed from the streets of DC."

The ACLU has heavily scrutinized law enforcement agencies' use of Stingray devices over the past year, arguing that Stingrays seriously encroach on individual privacy rights: "When its used to track a suspect's cell phone, [it] also gather[s] information about the phones of countless bystanders who happen to be nearby."

In an op-ed published last June, Nathan Wessler, an attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, said Stingrays were "initially the domain of the National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies," but that the use of the tracking device has now "trickled down to federal, state, and local law enforcement."


To date, the ACLU has identified 44 law enforcement agencies in 18 states that use Stingrays. According to Wessler, what's unique about the use of Stingrays in Washington, DC compared with their use in Sacramento, California or Tallahassee, Florida is the type of communications that are being swept up.

As Wessler told VICE News:

An inherent attribute of how this technology functions is that it sweeps in information about large numbers of innocent bystanders even when police are trying to track the location of a particular suspect. If the MPD is driving around DC with Stingray devices, it is likely capturing information about the locations and movements of members of Congress, cabinet members, federal law enforcement agents, and Homeland Security personnel, consular staff, and foreign dignitaries, and all of the other people who congregate in the District…. If cell phone calls of congressional staff, White House aides, or even members of Congress are being disconnected, dropped, or blocked by MPD Stingrays, that's a particularly sensitive and troublesome problem.

Wessler said the Fourth Amendment rights of tens of thousands of DC residents are likely violated whenever DC police uses Stingray, which sends out a more powerful signal than a cell tower and forces all mobile devices to report back serial numbers and locations.

"It is very accurate when trying to track locations," Wessler said.


The memo from the commander of the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division says the intelligence police gather through the use of Stingray "can readily be shared between MPD and our Team DC Federal partners (FBI, DEA, ICE, U.S. Marshals Service, United States Attorney's Office) as well as our neighboring state and local law enforcement agencies."

"Upon request, this equipment can also be used to assist these agencies with the location and apprehension of any of their targeted offenders," the memo said.

Yet, exactly what type of information Stingrays collect and how it is used remains a mystery due to the intense secrecy that continues to surround the technology. In a letter accompanying the documents the MPD sent to attorney Jeffrey Light, who filed the records request on behalf of VICE News, the department said it consulted with the FBI and decided to withhold Stingray training and operator manuals in their entirety under an exemption that covers "trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from outside the government."

Documents obtained by the website Muckrock from the FBI last month show that law enforcement agencies are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the bureau before they can start using Stingrays. It's an unusual arrangement in that Harris Corporation, the manufacturer, is a private entity and the FBI is negotiating on its behalf.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the regulatory body that approved the sale of Stingray technology to state and local police. But the ACLU obtained emails that suggest Harris Corporation mislead the FCC when it sought approval by stating that the devices were only supposed to be used in "emergency situations."


The ACLU has asked the FCC to launch an investigation. The FCC declined to comment to VICE News, and a spokesperson for Harris did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

It also appears that oversight over MPD's use of Stingray is lacking. Gwendolyn Crump, a spokeswoman for the department, refused to respond to questions about whether police officials inform judges they are using Stingrays when they apply for probable cause warrants. Other records released through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) indicate that US Marshals have instructed police department officials to lie to courts about whether they use Stingray and instead to say they obtained intelligence information from a "confidential source."

One of the documents in the cache the DC police turned over to VICE News, however, says officers who use Stingrays undergo training that includes the operation and maintenance of the technology "as well as the procedures for obtaining court orders and subpoenas related to the initiation of [redacted]. Harris industries will provide a certified [redacted] as well as training manuals and equipment for class instruction."

The growing use of voiceprint passwords is another threat to your privacy. Read more here.

The taxpayer dollars DC police spent on equipment and training as well as the names of specific equipment is redacted from the purchase orders and invoices we obtained. However, the information is available on the General Services Administration's website and in unredacted invoices released by other law enforcement agencies.

A Democratic staffer on the Senate Homeland Security Committee who reviewed the documents DC police turned over to VICE News said he was unaware of the use of Stingrays in Washington, DC and added that he intends to push for a hearing on the "increased level of unregulated surveillance in the city."

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold

Photo via Flickr