Tacoma police using technology to intercept cellphone data

by: Essex Porter Updated:

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TACOMA, Wash. —

The Tacoma Police Department has reluctantly confirmed that it uses a cellphone tracking device that critics say can invade the privacy of innocent cellphone users. 

The device is called a Stingray and it tricks cellphones into giving information to it, instead of a legitimate cellphone tower. 

“That's very disturbing to hear,” said Aaron Rumph of Tacoma, cellphone in hand. 

“I don't like the idea of anyone being able to look at my phone and see what I'm doing at all, besides myself, without my permission,” Rumph said. 

Public records first reported by KIRO-7 news partner The News Tribune, revealed the name of the device, Stingray, acquired from the federal government under a public disclosure agreement. 

Those documents also say Tacoma spent $250,000 on “specialized technical equipment,” so some council members didn’t know they were buying a device that could scoop up all cellphone information in a half-mile radius. 

“It's like they're kicking down the doors of 50 homes and searching 50 homes because they don't know where the bad guy is," Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union, told The News Tribune. 

In a statement, Tacoma police said they had applied for warrants 180 times since June to use the device. And they said it is used to “locate suspects wanted for crimes such as homicide, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and narcotics trafficking.” 

They also said, "The technology does not collect content such as voice, text, or data, and does not retain any data or other information."   

Police spokeswoman Officer Loretta Cool said the non-disclosure agreement prevented Police Chief Don Ramsdell from answering questions in an interview, despite the department’s confirmation that it owns the cellphone tracking device.  

So the department would not explain how the device can be used to prosecute criminal cases if it “does not collect content.” 

“We put our privacy out anyways on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, so I really don't care,” said Tacoma resident Emerald King, a cellphone in her hand.

 King was at a bus stop with Cathy Triggs, “I just think if you're doing what you're supposed to be doing and obeying the law you shouldn't have a problem.”

Here is the satement and Q and A from Tacoma police:

Q: Do you have a cell site simulator? How long have you had it?

A: We have had a cell site simulator since 2008 and began using it in 2009.

Q: Why is it important for police to have a tool like this?

A: It is an investigative tool that is valuable to local law enforcement locate suspects wanted for serious felonies to include; homicide, rape, robbery kidnapping, and narcotics trafficking.  It is also used to locate missing and/or endangered persons.

Q: How often have you used the cell site simulator to detect or prevent IEDs?

A:  We have not used it for those purposes.

Q: How often have you used this device since you got it in 2008?

A: 180 applications since June 2014.

Q: Do you get a warrant each time you use it?

A: Yes

Q: What do you do with the data collected from non-suspects?

A: We do not collect data.

Copyright The Associated Press

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