The FBI requires state and local police to keep quiet about the capabilities of a controversial type of surveillance gear that allows law enforcement to eavesdrop on cellphone calls and track individual people based on the signals emitted by their mobile devices, according to a bureau document released recently under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The December 2012 document is a heavily redacted letter between the FBI and police in Tacoma, Wash., as the local department sought to acquire an IMSI catcher, sometimes described as a “fake cellphone tower” because it tricks individual phones into routing their calls and other data through the surveillance equipment. The Tacoma police were buying gear produced by Harris Corp., a Florida-based company that makes the StingRay and other IMSI catchers used by law enforcement agencies across the country.
The FBI letter, which was not classified but was designated as "law enforcement sensitive," told the Tacoma police chief that the Federal Communications Commission authorizes the sale of such surveillance equipment to state and local police departments on the condition that they first sign an FBI “non-disclosure agreement.”
The details of the agreement are redacted from the letter as released; the blacked-out portions stretch across the bulk of a six-page document, which was first published on Monday by MuckRock, a news site that helps journalists, researchers and others submit Freedom of Information Act requests and publishes the results.It had earlier been reported that the manufacturer of the device, the Harris Corporation, required its customers to sign nondisclosure agreements. But now we discover the feds have one, too - one that's apparently required by the FCC according to the letter Muckrock uncovered, though apparently not in its public rules. The Associated Press had written earlier (June 12) about the feds' attempts to conceal information about stingray use by local police, including a detail that foreshadowed this recent news:
Harris Corp., a key manufacturer of this equipment, built a secrecy element into its authorization agreement with the Federal Communications Commission in 2011. That authorization has an unusual requirement: that local law enforcement "coordinate with the FBI the acquisition and use of the equipment." Companies like Harris need FCC authorization in order to sell wireless equipment that could interfere with radio frequencies.To judge from that account, the NDA requirement stems from an "authorization agreement" with the FCC rather than a formal public rule. (A report from the Daily Caller alleged that the Harris Corporation misled the FCC, claiming the tech would only be used in "emergency situations" as opposed to routine investigations.) But the document discovered by Muckrock is the first we've learned of NDAs between the police and the FBI. It seemed grotesque when it was thought the Harris Corp. was requiring the NDAs. Now we know that the Department of Justice is not just complicit in that deceit but a formal party to the contract. And the FCC, instead of requiring phone companies to fix security vulnerabilities, are licensing private companies to exploit them for profit.
A spokesman from Harris Corp. said the company will not discuss its products for the Defense Department and law enforcement agencies, although public filings showed government sales of communications systems such as the Stingray accounted for nearly one-third of its $5 billion in revenue. "As a government contractor, our solutions are regulated and their use is restricted," spokesman Jim Burke said.
Indeed, it appears federal agencies actively encouraged local law enforcement to lie when they find evidence using the technology, claiming the information came from an informant. Again from the Post:
E-mails collected through a separate Freedom of Information Act request, by the ACLU, showed in June that the U.S. Marshals Service had asked police in Florida to not reveal that they had used IMSI catchers in determining the locations of criminal suspects. Instead, the police were instructed to say that they had learned the whereabouts of suspects using “a confidential source.”Has the US Marshals Service never heard of Brady v. Maryland?
I wonder, given passage of the Michael Morton Act, with its pro-active requirement to disclose inculpatory as well as exculpatory evidence, whether Texas police are following the feds' advice and lying in official documents when they use these devices? One would hope not, but then one would also hope the cops would have better sense than to sign a non-disclosure agreement that contradicts with state open records law. (We know the Fort Worth and Houston PDs own IMSI catchers, and probably DPS: Likely other agencies in Texas own them, too.)
Either way, it's no wonder there hasn't been a wider public outcry about the use of such spy tech without warrants nor public disclosure: The government has gone to tremendous lengths to conceal these activities.