This spring, an appeals court ruled that Baltimore police systemically misused stingray, a powerful surveillance device that spoofs cell sites to track cellphones. Last week, the Department of Justice issued a damning report detailing Baltimore PDs history of racial discrimination. As it turns out, those two issues arent just related; theyre intertwined.
Thats what a new FCC complaint, filed by the Center for Media Justice, ColorOfChange.org, and New Americas Open Technology Institute, alleges. The report goes further than just detailing Baltimores stingray indiscretions; it agues that the citys use of cell site simulators disproportionately impacts minority communities, with serious repercussions.
Cell site simulators arent a new technology; Baltimore alone has used them since at least 2007. While they go by various brandnames, like Hailstorm and StingRay II, theyre more broadly known as stingray devices. The way they function is fairly straightforward: they mimic cell towers so that phones will connect to them and reveal their unique device ID. Once law enforcement has that, they can track the phones movements.
Civil liberties advocates have long been bothered by Stingrays, both for what they do and the manner in which they are deployed—which is to say, secretly, and without a warrant. (That Maryland appeals court opinion was the first to state that a probable cause warrant was necessary prior to cell site simulator use).
I think we know just enough about Baltimores use of cell site simulator technology to have a sense of what we dont know about it.Attorney Laura Moy
Still, some information slips through. And the little that has indicates that Baltimore may have embraced stingray to a far greater extent than any other US city. In April of last year, a Baltimore detective testified that the Baltimore PD had used stingray tech 4,300 times since 2007, the FCC complaint notes, which averages out to 516 uses per year. For some context, thats four times more than New York City over a similar timespan, and several orders of magnitude more than cities like Boston (11 times) and San Diego (a few dozen times), all of which have larger populations than Baltimore.
The Baltimore Police department appears to be the heaviest user of cell site simulator technology of any state or local police department in the country, says Laura Moy, a lawyer with Georgetown Universitys Institute for Public Representation, who is acting as counsel for the FCC complainants. If anywhere else does deploy it more often, theyve done a great job hiding it.
Even in Baltimore, though, there are holes in the record. Of those 4,300 uses, a surveillance log obtained by USA Today last fall lists only 2,116 instances. Theres also no written stingray policy in Baltimore outlining how and when law enforcement should deploy the technology.
I think we know just enough about Baltimores use of cell site simulator technology to have a sense of what we dont know about it, says Moy.
Its also enough, Moy argues, to bring a case against Baltimore before the FCC.
More Than Surveillance
Though civil liberties groups have argued against stingray use for some time on the grounds that its surveillance violates privacy, but this new FCC filing takes a slightly different approach. By mapping Baltimores confirmed stingray uses against the racial make-up of the city, it shows that the program disproportionately affects black residents.
That may not sound surprising, especially in light of that DOJ report. Every aspect of Baltimores policing appears to more aggressively target the black community; why should high-tech surveillance be any different?
The focus on predominantly black neighborhoods is troublesome enough on its face, but the nature of how cell site simulators actually work exacerbates the problem. Stingray devices dont just trick phones; they also can disrupt normal service in their areas of operation. Phones within a 200 meter radius of the stingray can be taken off their normal networks, which in a dense urban area like Baltimore can comprise more than a hundred homes, according to the complaint. In addition to blocking and dropping calls in those areas, they can also cause a connected cellphones battery to drain more quickly. Most troublesome of all is that Stingray devices have also been found to block 911 calls.
That degree of service disruption is unacceptable, argues the FCC complaint, and made worse by the fact that its especially targeted at already underserved areas. Its the service disruption that makes stingrays a matter for the FCC.
They have the obligation to do something about this, says Moy. You have law enforcement agencies around the country making widespread use of licensed spectrum without getting licenses to do that. Thats a very clear violation of the Communications Act. Right now the FCC is just looking the other way.
Whether the FCC will take action is another question altogether. The agency has previously certified stingray equipment in 2011 and 2012, meaning the agency has been aware of their technical components and abilities for several years. The FCC also has an existing manual that, though heavily redacted, includes things like operating instructions. Even if it did want to reverse course, the timings not ideal; three months from now, the US will elect a new president, who will appoint a new slate of FCC commissioners. Thats not a lot of time to get things done.
Still, Moys hopeful that the FCC will act. Or at the very least, that highlighting this little known problem with stingrays helps advance not one but two important public policy issues. The conversation about Baltimore law enforcement’s relationship with the pubic should include surveillance, Moy says, and the conversation about surveillance should include its disproportionate racial targeting.
Baltimore PD’s stingray use is a serious matter. So is its increasingly fractious relationship with minority communities. The first step in addressing each may be realizing that in many ways they’re one and the same.