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Sun Investigates: Cellphone surveillance seen years earlier in 'The Wire'

HBO series gave viewers early look at 'stingray' cell phone surveillance technology.

The Baltimore Police Department surprised many when it revealed recently that it has used a cellphone surveillance device known as a "stingray" 4,300 times since 2007.

But years earlier, in 2004, fictional Baltimore police officer Lester Freamon was seen during the third season of the HBO series "The Wire" using a device called the "Triggerfish" to build a case using cellphone data.

The devices mimic a cellphone tower and force phones within their range to connect. Police use the technology to track down stolen phones or find people. But privacy advocates nationwide have questioned whether there has been proper oversight of its use.

David Simon, creator of "The Wire" and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, said in an email that "the transition from landlines to cellular technology left police investigations vulnerable well over a decade ago."

He noted that there was new technology at the time — such as Nextel phones that mimicked walkie-talkies — that "was actually impervious to any interception by law enforcement during a critical window of time."

"At points, we were asked by law enforcement not to reveal certain vulnerabilities in our plotlines," Simon said. That included communications using Nextel devices.

Simon said show co-creator Ed Burns had argued to the rest of the writers "that to highlight this vulnerability in our drama would have irresponsibly driven the communications of every criminal conspiracy into an impenetrable hole."

"'The Wire' depicted with some measure of accuracy the cat-and-mouse of its day, with law enforcement trying to catch up to the transition from fixed-location phones to mobile technologies. … That dynamic continues, and yes, the Triggerfish technology has matured to the Stingray," Simon said.



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