By Jose Pagliery
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) – The Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States (FBI) has a secret device to locate suspected criminals, but apparently it prefers to let the suspects go free than to reveal any details about the high-tech tracker in court.
The device, called the Stingray, tricks cell phones into revealing their locations. A judge’s order last week threatens to reveal closely guarded details about how police use the Stingrays.
Judge Patrick H. NeMoyer of Buffalo, New York, outlined a 2012 agreement between the FBI and the Erie County Sheriff’s Office in his court order Tuesday: The FBI instructed police to drop the criminal charges instead to disclose “any information regarding the cell location simulator or its use.”
The Erie Police (Buffalo is the county seat) had long tried to keep that contract secret, but the judge rejected that idea and ordered that the details of the Stingrays be made public.
“If that is not an instruction that affects the population, nothing is,” wrote NeMoyer.
Erie Police had used the Stingrays to locate several suspected criminals, a suicidal person and four missing persons, including an 87-year-old with dementia, according to the judge’s order.
The Erie County Sheriff’s Office declined to speak to CNNMoney on Wednesday. Police spokesman Scott Zylka said they are now working with the FBI to appeal the judge’s decision and keep the agreement secret.
The FBI did not provide immediate comment.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an NGO dedicated to protecting citizens’ rights in the US, requires details about the use of Stingrays under public records laws.
What are Stingrays?
Few people even know that Stingrays exist, or that federal agents and police across the country are increasingly using them to arrest people. It is a small device that mimics a cell phone tower, and tricks nearby cell phones into connecting to it rather than a real phone company tower.
There is a growing concern about privacy because, although the police use the Stingrays to locate an individual, they can potentially take text messages and data from the phone calls of thousands of innocent people.
In November, we learned that federal agents regularly fly planes over the United States to eavesdrop on Americans’ phone calls. We also know that Police in at least 20 states use Stingrays, according to public records obtained by the ACLU.
But everything else is a mystery because law enforcement agencies have confidentiality agreements with the maker of the Stingrays: Melbourne, Florida-based Harris Corporation. They also have similar secret contracts with the FBI.
Some US prosecutors drop suspect charges so they can keep quiet about the Stingrays. Late last year, Tallahassee police reached a friendly settlement with prosecutors for a marijuana dealer who robbed someone with a compressed air pistol. A felony charge with a four-year prison term became a misdemeanor with six months probation because his defense attorney discovered that police used a Stingray to locate him.
Hanni Fakhoury, a privacy attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Tuesday’s court order was the first time a nationwide police tactic to maintain secrecy at all costs has been revealed.
“We have long suspected that that is politics, but now we know it,” he said. “It’s crazy on a million legal levels.”
The ACLU’s lead attorney in this case, Mariko Hirose, described the Stingrays as military-grade equipment that has no place to be used on innocent American citizens. He also said that the FBI’s tactic to keep quiet about the Stingrays makes little sense. Erie County spent more than $ 350,000 to purchase two Stingray devices and related training and equipment.
“Why are municipalities spending so much money when they might have to drop charges in the name of secrecy?” He asked.