Inside Chicago Police’s Secret Cell Phone Spying Agreement with the FBI

Post written by special guest contributor, Freddy Martinez.

Over roughly the last year I’ve worked to uncover quite a bit about cell phone spying that Chicago Police has been doing since at least 2008. CPD has been quietly purchasing IMSI catchers (usually called Stingrays), which they describe as “military-grade electronics” which act as fake, portable cell phone towers to track cell phones. These Stingrays are capable of identifying all cell phones in a given area (roughly 1 Km in diameter, depending on the power used) and “filtering” out to a given wanted IMSIs (roughly, a number plus other identifying information). The basic function of an Stingrays is to show up to an arbitrary location, begin transmitting as a “real” cell phone tower, invalidating your current phone connection and forcing your phone to hand over its information. This information could mean dialed numbers, text message information, even your voice content all without a warrant. Through the Freedom of Information Act (and two FOIA lawsuits), we have learned that CPD claims to have no written procedures for when these Stringrays are deployed and further that the police department claims to have no records of this “military-grade” equipment being checked in and out of their Technology Lab.

Across the country we have seen that police departments have been signing non-disclosure agreements (NDA) with the FBI and Harris Corporation which forces them to keep quiet on how Stingrays are deployed. In Erie County, New York,  the ACLU fought all the way to nearly the Supreme Court of New York to force a police department to disclose its NDA. In fact, when CPD purchased their Stingray, they also signed an NDA with Harris and the FBI We have obtained a fully Non Disclosure agreement between from Chicago Police and the FBI and are publishing it here for the first time.

Photo of two different types of Stingrays

In analyzing the NDA, we notice this is the exact same NDA signed by the Erie County and CPD with the FBI and Harris Corporation. This indicated these agreements are boilerplate and used to hide critical records from the public. In fact, the police are not allowed to even buy the equipment unless they alert the FBI to routine public records requests. And both Erie County Sherrif’sand Chicago Police should “at the request of the FBI, seek dismissal of the case in lieu of using or providing, or allowing others to use or provide, any information concerning the Harris Corporation wireless collection equipment.” (page 6) So in the same breath that they claim this technology can save lives from dangerous criminals and terrorists, the case work could be thrown out at the direction on the FBI. It’s a perplexing level of secrecy for local police to engage in.

Of course, the NDA is not just the entire story, but part of a pattern of secrecy around Stingrays and their use. As previously mentioned, CPD claims to have no record of ever deploying the Stingrays or checking it and out of Tech Lab. Yet at the same time, they claim that court records are exempt under US code (18 U.S. Code § 3123) Pen Register/Trap and Trace provisions, which was significantly expanded after 9/11, and which CPD claims as the legal basis for their authorization. This is particularly relevant since PR/TT does not require a warrant for records, which might conflicts with IL SB 2828 law for real-time location tracking. On top of the secrecy around FOIA, cops have gone so far as to invent Confidential Informations to attribute information to instead of showing Stingray use in court. And this pressure to local police seem to be coming from the top levels of Obama DoJ. All of this is organized from the federal level down and Chicago Police seems to have no issue with the vast secrecy.

As our FOIA case progresses, we hope to share further updates with readers in this space.

RH Staff

Post from the RubyHornet staff

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