Civil rights groups complained to the FCC Tuesday over the Baltimore Police Department's use of the cell phone tracking technology known as stingray, alleging that the way police use it interferes with emergency calls and is racially discriminatory.
The complaint argues that the police department doesn't have a proper license to use the devices and is in violation of federal law. It calls on regulators at the Federal Communications Commission to step in and formally remind law enforcement agencies of the rules.
"The public is relying on the Commission to carry out its statutory obligation to do so, to fulfill its public commitment to do so, and to put an end to widespread network interference caused by rampant unlicensed transmissions made by BPD and other departments around the country," the groups say in the complaint.
The case is being brought by Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, and the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.
The use of stingrays, also known as cell site simulators, was long shrouded in secrecy and many details about their use is still not publicly known. The devices work by imitating a cell phone tower so that nearby phones connect to them instead of the normal network, allowing police to gather information such as the location of a handset.
Police in Baltimore acknowledged in court last year that they had used the devices thousands of times to investigate crimes ranging from violent attacks to the theft of cellphones. Investigators had been concealing the technology from judges and defense lawyers and after the revelations Maryland's second highest court ruled that police should get a warrant before using a Stingray.
Neil Grace, a spokesman for the FCC, said the commission was reviewing the complaint. "The commission expects state and local law enforcement to work through the appropriate legal processes to use these devices," he said.
The police department declined to comment citing the "pending litigation."
Laura Moy, a visiting professor at Georgetown University's law school who is representing the groups, said the complaint is being lodged against Baltimore Police because of the evidence of its prolific use of the devices.
"It seems quite likely that the Baltimore Police Department makes the heaviest use of this technology of any police department in the country," Moy said.
Exactly what impact Stingrays have on cell phone usage is not fully publicly known but the complaint cites government documents and news accounts to allege that they disrupt calls and could prevent callers reaching 911. The interference from a single device could affect several city blocks, the complaint alleges.
Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, said there is good evidence that the devices interrupt cell phone service. In some configurations they mobile block data connections in order to force a phone to use a less secure connection, he said, and in other cases seem to block calls outright.
Because the devices have been hidden from public view, Soghoian said, it has been difficult for communities that are suffering from the disruptions to understand what is happening and hold the police accountable.
"If you can't make calls, it's not like your phone is going to pop up with a message saying sorry the Baltimore PD is using a stingray right now," he said. "It just doesn't work."
What's more, the complaint argues, "these disruptions of the cellphone network—including of emergency calls—disproportionately harm the residents of Baltimore's Black neighborhoods."
The groups argue that surveillance using the devices also undermines people's free speech rights and describe the use of Stingrays as an electronic form of the intrusive police practices described in the scathing Justice Department report on the police department's pattern of civil rights violations.
"The problem of radicalized surveillance is particularly pronounced in Baltimore, where BPD's racially biased policing is clearly reflected in its racially biased deployment of [cell site] simulators," the groups say in the complaint.