Politics & Government

FBI agreement requires police to hide surveillance use from the courts

Police agreements with the Federal Bureau of Investigation ask officers to hide the capabilities of high-tech surveillance equipment from the courts and the public, according to records obtained by the ACLU.

Unknown is whether the Tacoma Police Department’s agreement with the feds to operate its cellphone-tracking device has such a provision. But even if it does, police officials say their officers now tell judges when using their device, called a cell site simulator or Stingray.

This week’s release of an unredacted copy of the nondisclosure agreement the FBI makes police agencies sign to acquire such technology came after a court ordered the Erie County Sheriff’s Office to turn over documents to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

One section of the agreement requires police to keep the use of the device secret, even if judges or defense attorneys ask for more information.

Police in Tacoma and elsewhere have used the device for years. It tricks cellphones into connecting with what appears to be a cell tower. Using the device, police can more accurately pinpoint the location of a suspect by the cellphone he or she carries. The device can also draw in data from all cellphones in an area, though Tacoma Police have said they don’t use it that way.

The Tacoma Police Department’s nondisclosure agreement with the FBI was provided to The News Tribune last year, but it was heavily redacted. In a response to an identical records request to the FBI, the agency would not confirm nor deny the existence of a nondisclosure agreement with Tacoma.

The NDA between the FBI and Erie County Sheriff’s Office tells police to hide the use of cell site simulators from judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, unless the agency gets written permission from the FBI. The Associated Press has also uncovered an unredacted copy of a 2011 agreement between the FBI and the Baltimore Police Department that has identical provisions.

After The News Tribune reported last year that Tacoma police possessed a Stingray, Pierce County Superior Court judges demanded police say when intended to use court orders to deploy the technology. They also made police promise to not keep data collected on non-suspects.

Tacoma Assistant Police Chief Kathy McAlpine said via email Thursday that the judges’ wishes are being honored: “Cell site simulator is in all of our requests for court orders.”

The department has asked for eight court orders since the beginning of the year, she wrote.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper said he has not signed one of the eight court orders, but the court has 22 judges and any one of them could have signed them.

Police in Tacoma and elsewhere have declined to explain how a cell site simulator works, citing nondisclosure agreements with the feds.

But in a Baltimore court this week, a police detective provided a rare glimpse into the technology by answering questions about a Hailstorm, the latest version of the Stingray. The detective said the device can make a stronger signal emanate from the phone to help police find it, the Baltimore Sun reported. It also can make the target phone ring, the detective told the court.

Tacoma police also have a Hailstorm, which the department bought in 2013 for $109,421 from Harris Corp. of Florida. The department publicly described the device as bomb detection equipment. Police have since admitted that they don’t use the device for that purpose.

While there are no laws governing how police in Washington state use cell site simulators, that could soon change. Legislators are considering a bill that would require police to get permission from judges to use the technology, along with a few other limitations.

The Tacoma Police Department says its officers already follow the rules set forth in the proposed legislation.