I was a senior in high school when I attended my first protest, in November 2003. It was in Miami, at a conference to discuss the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), an agreement which was never reached.
Police reacted to the days of large-scale protests with military force, jailing over 140 activists in the process. A local judge at the time called the police reaction a "disgrace for the community," citing at least 20 felonies he allegedly witnessed them commit.
Turns out that this event, which sparked my early interest in social activism, also marked a turning point for police departments across the state of Florida.
According to a stockpile of newly released documents acquired from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the FTAA protests marked the first time Florida law enforcement officials purchased a Stingray, a controversial cell-phone tracking device that is used by law enforcement officials across the nation, for broad usage. The device mimics a cell phone tower, tricking all phones in the area into sending it identifying information, in addition to having the ability to intercept text messages and phone calls.
The documents, acquired from local and state law enforcement agencies across Florida, reveal a questionable pattern of Stingray usage, which the government has apparently been trying to withhold from the public. Just two weeks ago, it was reported that the FBI has requested notification of any public records request related to Stingray use by local police. Many police departments said the reason they failed to produce requested records to the ACLU was because the FBI made them sign a non-disclosure agreement with Stingray's manufacturer.
From the very get-go, the police's use of the devices bring forth more questions than answers. A passage from the document of that first purchase of a Stingray in Miami suggests the devices were meant to monitor people protesting the FTAA conference—a First Amendment-protected activity, as Ars Technica points out. The Miami-Dade Police Department wrote the following in that purchase request for the Stingray (which, it is worth noting, was written retroactively; after the protests and arrests had already occurred):
Often, law enforcement's rationale for using Stingray devices is the ever-looming threat of domestic terrorism. Yet according to a detailed list of 250 investigations that involved the use of a Stingray provided by the Tallahassee Police Department, the most common investigations were for robbery, theft, and burglary. Other examples include cell phone tracking of suicidal persons, suspected murderers, and auto theft suspects, to name a few. Not one of the investigations revealed in the Tallahassee documents (the "most extensive" disclosure of information the ALCU received) appears to involve anything having to do with homeland security or terrorism.
In one of the rare terrorism-incidents detailed by the records, the Palm Bay Police Department actually borrowed a device from the manufacturer, which is located just down the road, to investigate a bomb threat at a local school.
The Miami Police Department said it had used Stingrays in 59 closed criminal cases within a one-year period ending in May 2014, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement listed a total of 1,835 Stingray uses. Records fees to obtain those specific documents ran in the several thousands, highlighting what the ACLU says is a widespread effort to obscure references to Stingray devices in police reports, making it unreasonable, if not impossible to comprehensively track their usage.
Instances where Stingrays are referred to as "electronic surveillance measures" or even simply as "confidential intelligence" in police reports are pinpointed in the ACLU's report that accompanied the release of the documents.
The organization also charges that the use of Stingrays might be a violation of state law. "In a strong ruling last year, the Florida Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment requires police to get a warrant before asking a phone company to track a cell phone user’s location in real time. The logic of that opinion should apply equally to cell phone tracking using Stingrays," the ACLU writes. "And because Stingrays sweep up information not just about suspects, but also bystanders, the need for robust judicial oversight is all the greater."
Overall, the ACLU finds it most troubling that there seems to be no comprehensive policy in place to monitor Stingray usage not only in Florida, but nationwide.
"Not a single department produced any policies or guidelines governing use of Stingrays or restricting how and when they could be deployed, suggesting a lack of internal oversight," the ACLU reports. "And no department provided evidence that it gets warrants before using the technology."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.