Baltimore City police spokesman Capt. Eric Kowalczyk discusses how the police use a controversial cell phone tracking technology known as Stingray. (Justin Fenton/Baltimore Sun)
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on Friday defended the widespread use of a cellphone surveillance device that sweeps up phone signals, echoing the Baltimore Police Department's stance that it's used to track criminals and limited in the type of data it collects.
Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor was aware of the program and supports it as an "effective tool" that has proved useful for police departments across the country. Nonetheless, Harris said, the mayor is open to discussing ways to make the program more transparent.
"If there is a way to bring more transparency into this program without undermining it, she would work with any interested party to do that," Harris said.
The extent of Baltimore police's use of the so-called stingray device was largely secret until this week, when a detective testified in court that the department has used it 4,300 times since 2007 and that a 2011 nondisclosure agreement with the FBI prevented police from discussing details about it.
Sheryl Goldstein, who at that time was director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, was listed as a recipient on that agreement that required parties to keep quiet about the program. As part of the agreement, the FBI retains the right to ask local police departments and prosecutors to drop cases against criminals before revealing information about stingray programs.
The stingray has come under scathing criticism from privacy advocates. Christopher Soghoian, a technology expert with the American Civil Liberties Union, said focusing on ways the stingray aids police investigations disregards the indiscriminate collection of phone signals and the device's ability to jam phone service in areas where police use it.
Soghoian said the shroud of secrecy surrounding stingrays leaves judges in the dark about the type of police operations they are allowing and law-abiding citizens unaware of their vulnerabilities to such technology. He also noted that enough information is already publicly available for criminals to create their own stingray-like tools.
"This is a clear and troubling example of the government prioritizing its own intelligence needs over the security and privacy of everyday citizens," he said.
Other city leaders said they had been informed about the use of the stingray.
City Councilman Brandon Scott said he understands why police did not disclose its widespread use until recently. "We all know if they make an agreement with the federal government, they need to honor that agreement," he said.
Still, Scott said he wants assurances that police are not tracking the phones of individuals not involved in criminality.
"They're going to have to figure out a way to be transparent and show they're not tracking the cellphones of everyday citizens who are not involved in crime," he said. "They have to make sure they are not violating the rights of people they're not investigating. I don't want it to turn into a Big Brother situation."
Such devices act as mobile cellphone towers, forcing phones within a certain radius to connect to them and share their unique identifying information. That information allows police to track the location of a targeted phone.
The technology has increasingly been used in local law enforcement cases and at the national level by the U.S. Marshals Service on surveillance planes. Members of Congress and the ACLU have been pressing for more information about the devices and asked the Federal Communications Commission to look into their use.
Police have said their operations are careful and that they obtain court orders before using the device. Capt. Eric Kowalcyzk, spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said this week that officers "will use every resource available to reduce violent crime and arrest people responsible for those violent crimes."
Police in Baltimore County have used a similar device more than 600 times since 2010, according to officials. Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger has defended stingray use there, saying it is done "lawfully" and provides information that helps to secure convictions.
Harris said the mayor's support for the program came only after she learned of the limitations placed on the technology to protect individuals' privacy. He emphasized points made by police this week that the technology does not allow police to record calls, read texts or emails, or store any information.
"If there were not checks and balances in place, this is not something the mayor would have been OK with," Harris said. "She was comfortable that there was checks and balances in place."
Soghoian said police and other officials mislead the public when they focus on what the devices can't do, rather than what they can.
"This device is a dragnet search, collecting information on hundreds of people," Soghoian said. "All of the statements by law enforcement have overlooked that part because they know it's inexcusable."
Depending on the device, stingrays can sometimes jam all local incoming and outgoing calls and texts on certain cellphone networks while in use, Soghoian said.
The device used by Baltimore police, known as Hailstorm, is manufactured by the Florida-based Harris Corporation. A spokesman for the company declined to comment.
Critics have called on Congress to address the issue and force law enforcement agencies to disclose more information.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, said this week that he has asked the FBI for "greater clarification" about how the device is deployed. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said there should be reporting on how often the technology is used, under which legal authorities, and what independent audit controls are in place to prevent abuse.
Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, called on the FCC last year to address the nation's cellphone network vulnerabilities to the stingray in a letter to Chairman Tom Wheeler, writing that "hackers and hobbyists" could easily make the devices at home.
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