The tracking device known as a “StingRay” is a mobile cell site simulator that can pick up the location of a cell phone. It tracks phone ID and telephone numbers of phones that are connected to the device, providing law enforcement with sensitive information.
The First Amendment Coalition, the non-profit civil rights organization that is suing the SDPD, is pressuring the department to publicize the manner in which law enforcement uses the device to find potential suspects.
Under California’s Public Record Act, the coalition is arguing that the police department is obligated to provide that information. Civil rights activists are wary that its usage qualifies as “mass surveillance” because it can intercept data from other callers when a phone range is turned on.
“These devices are capable of locating a cell phone signal with extraordinary precision, but do so in an indiscriminate manner, scooping up information from all cell phones, smartphones, and other devices that use cell or mobile technology within the Stingray’s vicinity,” according to the FAC petition.
The City Attorney’s Office released a statement in response citing the U.S. Department of Justice, saying that disclosing records information impedes law enforcement from carrying out their responsibilities to protect citizens:
"Information regarding the equipment must not be disclosed because to do so would potentially endanger the lives and physical safety of law enforcement officers and adversely impact criminal and national security investigations. The city is obligated to follow that direction and will do so absent further direction from the Department of Justice or a court order.”
The cell phone tracking device has long been used by the FBI and is now in wide use around the country in local police departments. The secrecy surrounding its use has prompted suspicion among nationwide civil liberties organizations.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a donor-supported membership organization that advocates for civil liberties in a digital world, refers to the stingray as "the biggest technological threat to cellphone privacy you don't know about."
EFF recently joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to support the requirement of a search warrant before approving the seizure of two months of cell phone location data by law enforcement in one particular case in Texas. That argument was overturned in court.
The FBI continues to defend the use of the cell phone tracking device, arguing that the agency does not keep repositories of cell tower data for any purpose other than in connection to specific investigations.