Baltimore will spend nearly $1 million to update a cellphone tracking technology that police use to collect select data from phones and that has been the subject of litigation.
The $920,000 purchase from Cognyte Software will upgrade the city’s stingray technology, which works by mimicking a cellphone tower and tricking all phones within a range of up to a mile to connect with it. The suitcase-sized device allows police to record a phone’s location and number as well as the numbers of outgoing calls and texts.
Unlike the city’s current stingray system, the new equipment will be compatible with fifth-generation wireless known as 5G. Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved the upgrade Wednesday.
City Council President Nick Mosby, one of five members of the board, said he had concerns about the device being misused, and encouraged police to upgrade their record system for officers who use the technology. The board voted unanimously in favor of the purchase.
Baltimore has been a flashpoint for the use of the stingray technology, which the city introduced at least 15 years ago. In the past, Baltimore Police and other departments around the country withheld information about their use of stingray devices, citing nondisclosure agreements with the FBI.
Baltimore’s use of the technology first came to light in a 2014 court case. The police department said at the time it had used the stingray device thousands of times.
The city’s use of the technology has been affirmed by several courts after repeated challenges by defense attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued the technology indiscriminately collects phone signals and has the ability to jam phone service in areas where police use it.
In 2017, the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled that evidence gathered by such a device was admissible against a man accused of a 2014 killing in the city. The decision reversed lower court rulings that had suppressed the evidence.
Maryland courts ruled in 2016 that police must obtain a probable-cause warrant to track cellphones with a stingray.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Lt. Habib Kim told members of the Board of Estimates that the stingray does not allow Baltimore Police to listen to phone calls or read text messages. Documents released in 2015 in response to an ACLU lawsuit in California showed the devices are capable of intercepting the content of voice and text communications, according to a report from Wired.
In 2020, Maryland passed a law barring the use of stingrays without a court order. The law also requires police to delete information gathered incidentally and bars police from intercepting calls and texts.
Kim told the board it would be “difficult” for police to use Baltimore’s stingray equipment without authorization. Officers must have credentials to get into the building where the equipment is housed. The vehicle that carries the device is locked in a secure garage, and the equipment is difficult to operate without two officers, he said.
Police who use the equipment are logged manually by a detective with his unit, which consists of two sergeants and nine detectives, Kim said.
“I think the fact that it’s a small and closed off unit doesn’t necessarily provide any level of comfort,” Mosby said.
Mayor Brandon Scott asked Kim whether the age of the city’s current stingray technology has hindered its use. The city’s current system is not compatible with 5G technology, Kim said. When subjects of the tracking system are in areas covered by 5G technology, police must wait for them to move into an area with lower grade service, Kim said.
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In one instance, police were attempting to track a person threatening suicide. The person could not be tracked until they moved to a different area.
“By then, it was too late,” Kim said.
Scott, a city councilman when Baltimore’s use of the technology was revealed, weighed in on its use in 2015. He told The Baltimore Sun he wanted assurances the devices were not being used to track phones of people not involved in crime.
“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 at the time. “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.”
In 2016, civil rights groups complained to the Federal Communications Commission about the Baltimore Police Department’s use of the cellphone tracking technology, alleging that the way police use it interferes with emergency calls and is racially discriminatory. That same year Bloomberg News reported that 90% of Baltimore’s stingray use happened in majority non-white Census blocks where residents are predominantly Black.
Scott moved to end the use of a separate surveillance technology early in his tenure as mayor. For six months in 2020, several planes owned by Persistent Surveillance Systems circled the city’s skies, capturing images of 32 square miles over the objections of civil liberties groups including the ACLU. The pilot program, funded by a pair of Texas donors, took flight in hopes of reducing the city’s violent crime rate.
Scott announced during his first month in office that he planned to discontinue the flights. The Board of Estimates unanimously terminated the program in February 2021.