Stingray spying: FBI’s secret deal with police hides phone dragnet from courts
by Jessica Glenza and Nicky Woolf, The Guardian
Friday 10 April 2015 10.49 EDT
Multiple non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) revealed in Florida, New York and Maryland this week show federal authorities effectively binding local law enforcement from disclosing any information – even to judges – about the cellphone dragnet technology, its collection capabilities or its existence.
In an arrangement that shocked privacy advocates and local defense attorneys, the secret pact also mandates that police notify the FBI to push for the dismissal of cases if technical specifications of the devices are in danger of being revealed in court.
The agreement also contains a clause forcing law enforcement to notify the FBI if freedom of information requests are filed by members of the public or the media for such information, “in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to seek to prevent disclosure through appropriate channels”.
The strikingly similar NDAs, taken together with documents connecting police to the technology’s manufacturer and federal approval guidelines obtained by the Guardian, suggest a state-by-state chain of secrecy surrounding widespread use of the sophisticated cellphone spying devices known best by the brand of one such device: the Stingray.
The Florida agreement – obtained from the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office by the Guardian after a series of Stingray-related Freedom of Information Act requests sent over the past seven months – reads in part:
“The Florida Department of Law Enforcement will, at the request of the FBI, seek dismissal of the case in lieu of providing, or allowing others to use or provide, any information concerning the Harris Corporation wireless collection equipment/technology, its associated software, operating manuals, and any related documentation.”
The provision for pushing cases for dismissal rather than reveal information about Stingray capabilities and scope, he said, represented “the FBI’s consistent policy of making local police maintain extraordinary and extreme secrecy”.
This kind of sweeping secrecy has led to tense exchanges in courtrooms, and the crumbling of prosecution’s cases, as they attempt to maintain secrecy. City councils may even be unaware that the police departments they oversee are using the devices if the local force has signed similar agreements with the FBI.
Now, defense attorneys appear to be catching on to the practice. In Tallahassee, Florida, the ACLU has amassed a list of more than 300 cases where they believe Stingrays have been used to locate clients, and at least one Florida case recently came undone when defense attorneys began to dig into the involvement of Stingrays.