The Chicago Police Department is being sued for acting in “bad faith” and “willfully and intentionally” failing to provide records on the use of “Stingray” surveillance devices to track and locate cell phones.
Freddy Martinez submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Chicago Police Department on March 22. He received an acknowledgment on April 1 from police that they had received his request. But then months went by, and despite multiple attempts to follow up and figure out when the department might complete his request, the police have chosen to ignore his emails, and his request.
The initial request for information was the following:
…I am seeking any records pertaining to the purchase or reception of any ISMI catchers, commonly known as Stingrays (a trademark of Harris Corporation). The purpose of these ISMI catchers is to intercept and log GSM [and/or] DCMA (cell phone communications). I am looking for any and all records related to the following (but not limited to) commercial products: Stingray, StingRay II, Amberjack, TriggerFish, Gossamer, Hailstorm, Harpoon or Kingfish. These devices (and devices like them which I am also seeking records for) can capture IMEI codes, TMSI, MSISDN and related phone data. I am looking for any and all records related to the purchase, billing, ongoing costs and how they are paid for…
The technology, according to the ACLU, enables the “electronic equivalent of dragnet ‘general searches’ prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.” Stingrays “emulate a cellphone tower” and “force” cell phones to “register their location and identifying information with the Stingray instead of with real cell towers.” When they search for cell phones in an area, “large numbers of innocent bystanders’ location and phone information is captured.”
It is believed and suspected that the Chicago police have this equipment and have used it. Occupy Chicago participants thought it was being used against them when they were occupying the corner of Jackson and LaSalle in downtown Chicago. They witnessed equipment being installed in November 2011, an increase in the number of unmarked surveillance vans, and an impact on the quality of cell phone service. It all took place ahead of the NATO summit (and the then-planned G8 summit).
Martinez told Firedoglake that he is interested in privacy and wanted to know if the police had this technology and whether he should be worried about it. He also indicated that he hopes the records will lead to information on whether police are getting warrants when using these devices.
Reasonably confident that the police have records, he filed a complaint asking the court to declare that the police violated FOIA and should order the police to produce records. His complaint also calls for the judge to enjoin the police so they cannot withhold records that are not exempt from the law. And given the failure to respond, which constitutes a denial, the court is asked to determine whether this was done in bad faith, and, if so, impose a $2,500-$5,000 fine.
Matthew Topic, an attorney representing Martinez, told Firedoglake he has filed cases for other people where the government has similarly refused to respond. In those cases, the government would claim the records were exempt and refuse to provide them. Yet here “they’ve just ignored requests.” He cannot think of any previous instances where the Chicago police or the city of Chicago have just decided they were going to ignore instead of outright denying requests.
Other attempts to obtain information on the use of this new technology by police have resulted in peculiar or undemocratic responses. Multiple law enforcement agencies, in responding to the ACLU’s efforts to uncover information, have refused to acknowledge whether or not they even have public records related to Stingray surveillance. They have effectively sought to protect Harris Corporation’s contracts or business with the government from coming under any scrutiny.
Shockingly, in Saratoga, Florida, the US Marshal’s Service showed up at the city’s police department and seized physical copies of records from police to ensure the ACLU did not get a hold of them. The federal government effectively tried to ensure that Florida residents, who have a right under the law to see these records, would never get that chance.
Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney for the ACLU, said in his history of doing “public records work” he had never seen the federal government do anything like this.
“We’ve seen efforts by the federal government to meddle in public records requests seeking information about Stingrays, but everywhere else we’ve seen this it’s been in the nature of feeding legal arguments to local prosecutors,” Wessler explained. This happened within the legal system. Yet here US marshals swooped in and snatched up records so that no Florida court could order their release.
Corporations that sell this equipment and agencies in federal government willing to impose secrecy to protect law enforcement may choose to interfere and obstruct his request if they have not already.
Martinez recognizes that he must be proactive if he wants to get the information the police should, by law, have released to him by now.