A little after midnight on November 28, 2014, hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters filled the streets of downtown Chicago. The demonstration was one of many that erupted in cities nationwide soon after a Missouri grand jury failed to indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer for the shooting death of Michael Brown that August. As the protesters marched, a police vehicle crept behind them. The black SUV emblazoned with “City of Chicago Emergency Management” appeared to have two 360-degree cameras sprouting from its roof and a command center in the back.
Whenever the vehicle drove by, protesters reported that their phones stopped working.
A week later, audio of a police radio dispatch from the protest was released online. In the recording, an officer alerts a department intelligence analyst about of one of the protest organizers. “One of the girls here… she’s been on her phone a lot,” the officer says. “You guys picking up any information? Where they’re going, possibly?”The analyst responds, “Yeah, we’re keeping an eye on it. We’ll let you know if we hear anything.”The leaked conversation and the cellphone disruptions led many activists to conclude that the police were eavesdropping on them. This story circulated widely in protest circles, but the Chicago Police Department never confirmed any such surveillance operations that night. Legally, listening in on private communications between citizens talking over mobile phones would require a Title III search warrant. But one thing is indisputable: The technology to snoop on nearby phones exists—and the Chicago Police Department has had it for over ten years.
And such spy gear is not limited to Chicago. Hundreds of documents obtained by CityLab from the country’s top fifty largest police departments over the last ten months reveal that similar cellphone surveillance devices have been quietly acquired by local authorities nationwide.
The majority of these departments have at least one of two main types of digital-age spy tools: cellphone interception devices, used to covertly track or grab data from nearby mobile devices, and cellphone extraction devices, used to crack open locked phones that are in police possession and scoop out all sorts of private communications and content.
Access to such devices was once largely limited to intelligence agencies like the NSA and the FBI; their acquisition by local police departments is a relatively recent, less-discussed part of a wider police militarization trend. With only a few clicks, police can now map out individuals’ social networks, communication timelines, and associates’ locations, based on the data captured by these surveillance tools.
As a tool for crime fighting, such intelligence gathering can be powerful indeed: An interception tool could, for example, help police track down a kidnapper; an extraction device could then quickly identify their network of contacts. But the prospect of handing this military-grade spy gear to local law enforcement has inspired concern, in part because of the lack of uniform regulatory safeguards to protect citizens’ privacy.
“With 18,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, you know there are going to be many that are just going to jump on the technology bandwagon without regard for civil liberties,” says Norm Stamper, former Chief of the Seattle Police Department and now a police reform advocate.
These concerns have taken on a new urgency with the ascension of Donald Trump. The new administration has taken power amid an outbreak of civil resistance in cities nationwide and signs that federal authorities are poised to expand domestic surveillance capabilities. The president has frequently spoken of his plans for the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and mass surveillance of Muslim Americans and other domestic targets. Executing those plans would be dramatically helped by harvesting, retaining, and distributing personal information from the electronic devices many of us carry in our pockets. And your local police may already have the tools to do just that.
The spy game begins
Two decades ago, cellphone surveillance tools were mostly used by federal law enforcement and intelligence community personnel for national security and high-level criminal investigations. But after 9/11, as police departments ventured into counter-terror operations themselves, local cops began to snatch up these sophisticated devices.In December 2015, The Intercept released a catalogue of military surveillance tools, leaked by an intelligence community source concerned by this perceived militarization of domestic law enforcement. The catalogue included tools that could track thousands of people’s cellphones at once, extract deleted text messages from captured phones, and monitor ongoing calls and text messages. Following this news, last April, CityLab began sending public records requests to the top fifty largest police across the country asking for purchasing orders and invoices over 2012 to 2016 related to any of the devices listed in the catalogue. (Note: The fifty largest list is based on data released in 2010 from the Police Pay Journal, and thus does not include some departments now among the top fifty largest).Of the fifty departments sent public records requests, only eight claimed not to have acquired any spy tools leaked by The Intercept’s intelligence source. At least twelve have admitted to having cellphone interception devices, and nineteen have admitted to having cellphone extraction devices. The responses, security-based rejections, and outstanding requests still being processed for CityLab suggest that, at a minimum, thirty-nine of the fifty departments have acquired at least some of these military-grade surveillance tools over the last four years. (Click here to see the original cache of documents, or scroll down to the bottom of this article)
In the map above, you can get more details on the various capabilities that the police departments who responded to our requests have acquired in recent years. Click on a city to see its department’s spending, years of spending, acquired capabilities, and surveillance gear vendors. The non-redacted purchases, recorded in documents obtained from 27 departments, total more than $4.6 million. (Note: This figure includes all equipment disbursements released in the documents, going as far back as 2008 in a handful of cases.)
Interception: Seizing data from the skies
At least twelve of the departments surveyed have cellphone interception devices, known as cell site simulators (though this is likely an undercount given that eight departments refused to hand over records). Sometimes referred to as a “Stingray,” the suitcase-sized device masquerades as a cell tower, tricking all nearby cellphones to connect to itself. This connection can then be exploited to collect hundreds of phones’ locations, call and text logs, and, with certain versions, voice calls and text messages. Cell site simulators can be used to collect data on phones in a target area or to locate phones of interest.