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DC, Maryland and Virginia cops spying on cell phone data

11:21 PM, Dec 9, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (WUSA) -- It's not just the NSA - local cops are mining the cell phone data to reveal the location, identity and call information of hundreds of people at a time -- whether they're suspected of criminal activity or not.

Police in DC, Fairfax Co., Montgomery Co. buy cellular spy gear

In a joint investigation with Gannett television stations across the country and USA Today, WUSA9 obtained documents that show police in Fairfax County, Montgomery County and the Metropolitan Police in DC have purchased cell phone spy gear capable of tracking your whereabouts - even if you're not the one being investigated. 

Click here to see the national story on local police using cellular spy gear.

Spy gear called "Cell Site Simulator"

It's called a "Cell Site Simulator," and different models are manufactured under names like: "Stingray," "Kingfish," and "Amberjack". 

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WUSA9 obtained documents showing area police have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on cell site simulator equipment, software updates and FBI training.

A Stingray device can operate from inside a vehicle and hook up to a laptop. It mimics the signal that would come from a real cell phone tower, and tricks  nearby devices into communicating with it, which reveals their locations, and possibly more. 

Privacy concerns

Alan Butler works with EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which alerts the public to potential invasions of privacy.

Butler says he's seen, in a number of cases, where police have been able to triangulate a subject's location within a few feet -- without a search warrant. 

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"Where you are at different points in time can reveal a great deal about what people are doing, their associations," Butler says. "That can reveal that you're going to the doctor's office. Or it can reveal whether you're going to church or whether you're going to a rally." 

With few rules now, Congressman Dennis Ross says it will take legislation and the courts to develop standards.

"Does the data of your location, is that confidential?" asked Ross, a Republican.  "Because you're broadcasting your location as if you're shouting out something to the public, and I think this is, now the Supreme Court's going to visit this, I think it's something that we as citizens need to be concerned about."

Fairfax County Police among mum agencies

Law enforcement agencies are tight-lipped about the use of this technology. No one from the local police would go on camera with WUSA9.

When we asked the Fairfax County Police whether they own and use Stingray equipment, their public information officer responded, via email, "I do not believe that we have even acknowledged that we have or use the device you are asking about." 

WUSA9 found Fairfax County documents touting the Stingray's ability to "locate crime victims, crime suspects, wanted persons, and those in need of emergency services" and approving over $126,000 to "enhance the Stingray cell phone tracking system" with a system upgrade. 

Stingrays in DC, Montgomery County 

A procurement record from Montgomery County in 2012 shows that they spent more than $180,000 for "upgrades and enhancements to  Harris Stingray/Kingfish system." Montgomery County officials ignored our request for comment. 

DC's Metropolitan Police denied our requests for an interview, but WUSA9 found purchase orders from 2009, 2010 and 2013 for Stingray devices and equipment -- including their contract with the manufacturer of the products, Harris Corporation. As recently as March of this year, MPDC spent $107,786 for system upgrades and training on tracking civilian cell phones. 

To locate their targets, the technology scoops up the data of hundreds of unintended cell users too. There are no known standards requiring police to erase data collected from those not suspected of criminal activity -- private information from citizens like you. 

Butler, from EPIC, tells us that the only foolproof way to keep your cell phone data secret is to turn your phone off - or stop carrying one altogether.

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