Police secretly track cellphones to solve routine crimes

635756885043163394-AP-Baltimore-ShootingThe crime itself was ordinary: Someone smashed the back window of a parked car one evening and ran off with a cellphone. What was unusual was how the police hunted the thief.

Detectives did it by secretly using one of the government’s most powerful phone surveillance tools — capable of intercepting data from hundreds of people’s cellphones at a time — to track the phone, and with it their suspect, to the doorway of a public housing complex. They used it to search for a car thief, too. And a woman who made a string of harassing phone calls.

In one case after another, USA TODAY found police in Baltimore and other cities used the phone tracker, commonly known as a stingray, to locate the perpetrators of routine street crimes and frequently concealed that fact from the suspects, their lawyers and even judges. In the process, they quietly transformed a form of surveillance billed as a tool to hunt terrorists and kidnappers into a staple of everyday policing.

The suitcase-size tracking systems, which can cost as much as $400,000, allow the police to pinpoint a phone’s location within a few yards by posing as a cell tower. In the process, they can intercept information from the phones of nearly everyone else who happens to be nearby, including innocent bystanders. They do not intercept the content of any communications.

Dozens of police departments from Miami to Los Angeles own similar devices. A USA TODAY Media Network investigation identified more than 35 of them in 2013 and 2014, and the American Civil Liberties Union has found 18 more. When and how the police have used those devices is mostly a mystery, in part because the FBI swore them to secrecy.

Police and court records in Baltimore offer a partial answer. USA TODAY obtained a police surveillance log and matched it with court files to paint the broadest picture yet of how those devices have been used. The records show that the city’s police used stingrays to catch everyone from killers to petty thieves, that the authorities regularly hid or obscured that surveillance once suspects got to court and that many of those they arrested were never prosecuted.

Defense attorneys assigned to many of those cases said they did not know a stingray had been used until USA TODAY contacted them, even though state law requires that they be told about electronic surveillance.

“I am astounded at the extent to which police have been so aggressively using this technology, how long they’ve been using it and the extent to which they have gone to create ruses to shield that use,” Stephen Mercer, the chief of forensics for Maryland’s public defenders, said.

Prosecutors said they, too, are sometimes left in the dark. “When our prosecutors are made aware that a detective used a cell-site stimulator, it is disclosed; however we rely upon the Police Department to provide us with that information,” said Tammy Brown, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore’s State’s Attorney. “We are currently working with the Police Department to improve upon the process to better obtain this information in order to comply with the law.”

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