Last week, the Justice Department issued a scathing report concluding that the Baltimore Police Department has a troubling pattern of racial bias and may have violated federal law. Now the BPD is facing a complaint by three civil rights advocacy groups for its use of cell-site simulators (commonly known as stingrays) in predominantly black areas of Baltimore.
The Center for Media Justice, Color Of Change, and New America's Open Technology Institute filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday, arguing that the BPD's use of stingrays constitutes "rampant unauthorized use of licensed [cellular] spectrum." Because stingrays collect information by mimicking cell towers and forcing nearby phones to connect to them, the litigants argue it constitutes an unlicensed invasion. However, an FCC official told The Washington Post that local law enforcement don't need a license to operate the stingrays. (A spokesperson for BPD declined to comment on the complaint "due to this being pending litigation.")
It's striking to see the how heavily the stingrays are deployed against Baltimore's black population. Here's a map from the complaint:
The portions of the map highlighted in red have a population that's over 65% black, and each teal mark represents somewhere a stingray was used, according to reporting by USA Today's Brad Heath.
The complaint stems in large part from Heath's work, which revealed last year that the BPD was quietly using this technology on a vast scale. Heath's reporting also pointed out that while stringray advocates like FBI Director James Comey claim they helped catch serious criminals, the BPD was largely using the information to surveil and prosecute minor crimes, including misdemeanors.
Law enforcement agencies around the country have been notoriously cagey about stingrays. Last year, the FBI requested notification of any records requests regarding local law enforcement's use of them. They've also had local agencies use non-disclosure agreements with manufacturers to prevent the release of information to the public. One of the agencies with such an agreement is The Baltimore Police Department. That said, courts have sided with complainants seeking information several times in the past year, and ordered the release of documents about stingray purchases and their use by local law enforcement.
Law enforcement have also acknowledged that, as the complaint points out, the use of stingrays disrupts cellphone use in the areas they're deployed, including, 911 calls.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org