Some Bay Area Police Departments Can Wiretap Cellphones, ACLU Says

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Several Bay Area police departments have the ability to eavesdrop on cellphone conversations through a special wiretapping device, according to documents released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California on Thursday.

The ACLU said the agencies have a device called a “Stingray,” which mimics a cellphone tower and tricks wireless devices in a given area into communicating with it. The group said the device is highly intrusive because police can track the location of cellphones and potentially listen in on one’s conversations.

According to the documents, police departments in Fremont, Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco, along with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office either have the devices or have funding to acquire them.

The documents said Oakland has had a Stingray since at least 2007, and has made dozens of arrests using the device. In San Jose, police spent more than $400,000 buying at least one Stingray, along with training.

Other law enforcement agencies in California that could have the devices include the Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Sacramento Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego Police Department.

The ACLU said they are questioning if the devices can be operated in a constitutional fashion.

“There’s a very good argument that Stingrays might not be constitutional at all under the Fourth Amendment,” ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye told KPIX 5. “By their nature, they’re very intrusive. They sweep up the information not only of a target device but also of all of the other innocent third parties in an area.”

None of the police departments using the stingray would talk to KPIX 5. All of them have signed non-disclosure agreements with Harris Corporation, the Florida-based company that makes the Stingray.

The ACLU said they want more transparency about the use of the Stingray. A Harris spokesperson told KPIX 5 for security reasons he could not discuss the Stingray or any information on how it works.

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