LAPD using controversial spy tool in routine crime cases

Police used a device intended to monitor terror suspects, which gathers phone data from nearby non-suspects too

Published January 24, 2013 8:02PM (EST)

 Door of LAPD car (Shutterstock/spiritofamerica)
Door of LAPD car (Shutterstock/spiritofamerica)

The LAPD used a cell phone monitoring device designed for counterterror purposes in routine criminal investigations 21 times in just four months last year, LA Weekly reported.

Using federal funds the police department obtained the Stingray technology, which allows police to track mobile phones in real time, with the purported intention of using the devise to monitor terror suspects. However, notes LA Weekly, the device was used in "13 percent of the 155 'cellular phone investigation cases' that Los Angeles police conducted between June and September last year" -- including for burglary, drug and murder investigations.

The device works by masquerading as a cell phone tower and tricks your phone into connecting to it. The authorities can then determine, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation reported, "who, when and to where you are calling, the precise location of every device within the range, and with some devices, even capture the content of your conversations."

Stingrays raise particular issues when it comes to privacy, as the technology catches data from every cellphone in the area, including from phone users unrelted to the police investigation. These individuals would never know they are subject to police monitoring.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, told LA Weekly that  the documents released by LAPD acknowledge "that they do have this technology, and that they're using it. ... But the documents are ambiguous about whether or not the procedure requires a warrant or other judicial permission."

Federal authorities' use of Stingray devices has also raised privacy concerns in recent years. The EFF called the Stingrays the "biggest technological threat to cell phone privacy you don't know about," and noted that "These devices allows the government to electronically search large areas for a particular cell phone's signal—sucking down data on potentially thousands of innocent people along the way—while attempting to avoid many of the traditional limitations set forth in the Constitution."

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Counterterrorism Lapd Police Privacy Stingray Surveillance