This is a stingray, the animal after which the surveillance device under fire from civil liberties advcoates is named.
  • Matt9122/Shutterstock
  • A surveillance device used by Tacoma police, now under fire from civil liberties advocates, is named after stingrays.

It took many by surprise that civilian police at protests in Ferguson, Missouri, outfitted in camouflage and carrying assault rifles, looked like stormtroopers. Here in Seattle, in 2012, the public was surprised and dismayed by the Seattle Police Department's quiet acquisition of two drones through a Homeland Security grant. After an outcry, the department decommissioned the drones and, earlier this year, sent them to Los Angeles police.

Here's another surprise (woohoo!) from police in Tacoma: They've been using a suitcase-sized device called a Stingray that pretends to be a cell phone tower and sucks up data from surrounding cell phones.

In a June exposé, USA Today explained what the hell a Stingray does and called its use "a method from the NSA's playbook."

Did Tacoma police decide that the public deserves more transparency? Did they disclose their use of this technology voluntarily? Haha. Good one! No—instead, Phil Mocek, a co-founder of the Seattle Privacy Coalition, filed a slew of Freedom of Information Act requests and obtained documents earlier this month, some of which are redacted, showing that the department acquired the device in 2009 and has used it 179 times since then.

Tacoma's City Council, much like our own city council's experience with SPD's drones, had no clue, according to the Tacoma News Tribune.

Furthermore, the Tribune reports, the department said that it typically used the Stingray in cases where it had obtained a warrant. But the Pierce County judge who granted those warrants, Judge Ronald Culpepper, authorized them to use old-fashioned pen registers and trap-and-trace devices, not Stingrays. Now, Culpepper told the Tribune, "he plans to ask more questions of the Police Department when investigators next ask him for a pen register order or a warrant."

"These devices are used to spy on people’s words, locations, and associations," Mocek tells me by phone. "It’s nearly impossible to use these in a targeted manner, just by their nature." The device can capture everything from metadata (who called whom, when, and sometimes from where) to the content of calls.

Mocek says he filed the FOIA request with several dozen law enforcement agencies in Washington after hearing about their use in Florida. "All of them, except for Tacoma, eventually responded saying they had no documents responsive to my request," he says.

That's a little bit reassuring. But Mocek is appealing SPD's response to his FOIA because additional records show, he says, that the department only asked one person internally about the device, and their response only addressed whether they own a Stingray—not whether SPD has deployed one borrowed from somewhere else or what its policies are regarding the devices.

Screen_Shot_2014-08-27_at_4.22.35_PM.png
  • Courtesy of Phil Mocek

Mocek is right to be dissatisfied. His existing tranche of documents shows that several law enforcement agencies in the region, including the King County Sheriff, the Seattle bureau of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have borrowed the Stingray from Tacoma police and used it.

Two years ago, the Tribune notes, a Texas judge refused to authorize the DEA's use of a Stingray. "They did not address what the government would do with the cell phone numbers and other information concerning seemingly innocent cell phone users whose information was recorded by the equipment," Judge Brian Owsley wrote. "While these various issues were discussed at the hearing, the government did not have specific answers to these questions. Moreover, neither the special agent nor the assistant United States attorney appeared to understand the technology very well."

Today, a Tacoma police spokesperson told the Tribune, "We don’t collect data, any further explanation is a violation of the NDA," referring to a non-disclosure agreement the police reportedly have with the FBI.

SPD spokesman Patrick Michaud told me today he's "positive" that Seattle police "do not have one and we have never used one."

Support The Stranger

That doesn't mean, however, that department hasn't asked federal US Marshals to use a Stingray, he clarified. "The way it was described to me," he said, "was, we wouldn't even borrow it. We would ask the US Marshals to turn it on in a certain spot. We wouldn't be in charge of it."

He said that typically when Seattle police urgently need to locate a suspect, they put in a request with cell phone companies and use the location of real cell phone towers to triangulate the person's position. "If we knew the person was in the area, but we didn't know which one was their phone," Michaud said, "I could see them possibly being able to justify that. It would be an extraordinary circumstance for us to use it [the Stingray]." He said he's trying to find out if this has happened before or not.

"We're trying to become as transparent as possible," he said. "I think the technology is moving faster than people can keep up with at this point."