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Big Brother Is Watching You, Tallahassee (Legislators, Beware!)

March 9, 2014 - 7:00pm

The National Security Agency apparently isnt the only government agency engaged in domestic spying.

Local law enforcement is playing the role of Big Brother, too, but to what extent is still unknown.

Recent court documents reveal a troubling cellphone surveillance program conducted by the Tallahassee Police Department against unsuspecting cellphone users.

Attempts to keep the practice secret, even from judges, is raising questions as to just how prevalent police spying is within the Sunshine State.

The controversy stems from the arrest of James L. Thomas, a criminal suspect believed to be in possession of a stolen phone. Tallahassee police located and arrested Thomas by tracking a cellphone signal, then promptly searched his home.

It later became known that police didnt seek a warrant or admit to using a little-known surveillance device called a Stingray.

Stingrays are small mobile devices that trick cellphones into connecting to them as if they were cellphone towers. The technology gives police the ability to track phone movements and intercept both phone calls and text messages of any cellphone within range.

In the court case, Thomas attorney asked police how they determined the defendant had the cellphone in question. The police declined to answer. A judge ordered a response, but only after clearing the courtroom and sealing the official record.

Now on appeal, courtroom deliberations revealed last week that the Tallahassee Police Department used a Stingray 200 times since 2010 without seeking a warrant.

This record makes it very clear that (Tallahassee Police Department) were not going to get a search warrant because they had never gotten a search warrant for this technology, an appeals court judge said.

Beyond the prospect of unconstitutional, warrantless police searches, government watchdogs have long warned against surveillance tactics that broadly expose the personal information of countless innocent people in attempts by law enforcement to identify individuals suspected of crimes.

When police use invasive surveillance equipment to surreptitiously sweep up information about the locations and communications of large numbers of people, court oversight and public debate are essential, states the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU is now leading the effort to determine just how widespread cellphone tracking is in Florida. The group announced a public records submission Monday to nearly 30 police and sheriffs departments across the state.

Court documents show the Tallahassee Police Department didnt seek a search warrant in the Thomas case because it did not want to reveal information about the technology they used to track the cellphone signal.

TPD also said the Stingray was loaned to the department from a private manufacturer who in turn required a nondisclosure agreement.

A nondisclosure agreement is typically a civil agreement between two or more parties over a commercial contract, Christopher Torres, a Tallahassee defense lawyer, told Watchdog.org.

Theyre saying because its a cellphone, they dont have to get a warrant, but its basically a wiretap, Torres said. You cannot say something is protected by a trade agreement and that somehow trumps the U.S. Constitution.

According to ARS Technica, Stingrays are exclusively manufactured by the Harris Corp., a Melbourne-based telecommunications company. Earning $5 billion in annual revenue, Harris Corp. supplies electronic equipment to government, defense and commercial sectors.

Since 2004, Harris has earned more than $40 million from spy technology contracts with city, state, and federal authorities in the U.S., according to procurement records, reports ARS Technica, an online information technology periodical.


Contact William Patrick at wpatrick@watchdog.org or follow Florida Watchdog on Twitter at @watchdogfla.

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