A recent Florida court opinion provides evidence that some law enforcement agencies in our state are using controversial technology that allows them to secretly collect data from cellphones and track the movements of people using them.
The so-called "Stingray" is a mobile device about the size of a brief case, which is typically mounted inside a police vehicle. Stingrays impersonate a cell phone tower, prompting cell phones and other wireless devices in their vicinity to communicate with them. The technology gives police the ability to track phone movements with extreme precision and intercept both phone calls and text messages of any cell phone within range.
In Thomas v. State , 127 So.3d 658 (Fla. 1st DCA 2013), the Tallahassee Police Department used Stingray technology to track a stolen cellphone to a specific apartment. The court’s opinion states, “[the police] did not want to obtain a search warrant because they did not want to reveal information about the technology they used to track the cell phone signal.” Instead, they knocked on the door and searched the apartment without consent, an action the appellate court found to be a violation of the 4th Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The prosecutor in the case told the court that law enforcement was “loaned” the equipment by its manufacturer and that they entered into non-disclosure agreement with the company. Thus, they avoided a search warrant “not wanting to reveal the nature and methods” of the covert equipment.
In March of this year the American Civil Liberties Union sent 36 public records requests to various state and local Florida law enforcement agencies seeking information about their use of Stingrays. In response, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released heavily redacted records revealing that the agency has spent more than $3 million on Stingrays, that it has signed agreements with a number of local and regional law enforcement agencies allowing them to use the FDLE’s devices, and that it has asked local agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements. Responses from other local agencies have been purposely vague and evasive, neither confirming nor denying the use of the device. Read more about the responses to the ACLU's records requests here
At this time, little is known about the devices capabilities and even less is known about how the device is being used by police to monitor the movements and communications of Floridians. What is certain is that this technology raises serious concerns under the 4th
Amendment. More information is needed to determine the legality of these devices and provide better oversight of their use.