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Is TPD Playing Big Brother?

There's some news out today that is a little disturbing to some people on a few levels. It appears that Tacoma Police Department has technology that allows it to collect cell phone information on the public. They've had it for several years, and have been keeping it up to date with the latest cell phone technology. The current Tacoma City Council voted on the resolution that updated the technology last year, but they may not have understood what they were approving.

According to an article from Kate Martin at The News Tribune TPD purchased the surveillance equipment to gather cell phone data in 2007. Martin writes that the equipment, known as "Stingray," can gather information on calls, texts, and data transfers within half a mile of wherever it is located.

It doesn't sound like a finely tuned device. Stingray and its associated data collection technologies take in information on every cell phone in an area that connect to it, and allow the police to filter out what they want. They do that by essentially pretending to be a cell tower, passing data from nearby phones through their systems before passing it on to a real cell tower. Even the product names of this type of equipment evoke a fishing expedition - Stingray and Kingfish, Triggerfish, Amberjack, and Harpoon (okay, so Hailstorm doesn't quite fit). A quick google of the terms shows that Tacoma isn't alone in confronting the not-too-public, perhaps legal-gray-area use of these tools.

TPD's March 2013 request for "specialized technical equipment," which was approved by the current Council, gives a fairly broad and generalized description of the use of the system. It doesn't mention a name for the equipment, or its specific functions. 

Tacoma Police Department uses specialized technical equipment to support field operations for criminal investigations and Homeland Security Initiatives. This new equipment offers enhanced technological capabilities for the Tacoma Police Department Explosives Ordinance Detail  (EOD) with lED prevention, protection, response and recovery measures. This proprietary equipment is manufactured by the Harris Corporation. 

In the request to formally waive competitive bidding procedures, Tacoma Police Detective Jeff Shipp describes the equipment as specifically related to explosives.

 ... specialized technical equipment utilized by Special Investigations in support of field operations for criminal investigations. This equipment offers enhanced capabilities in new technologies that directly support the Tacoma Police Department Explosives Ordinance Detail (EOD) with prevention, protection, response and recovery measures. 

According to the Electronic Frontiers Foundation and others, Tacoma Police are not alone in framing their need for the equipment as needed for operations related to homeland security or explosives. 

The results of a public records request posted on Muckrock by Phil Mocek include lists that appear to show records of use of the technology - including dates, crimes, and cell phone carriers involved, along with the outcomes - capture/attempt capture. Crimes listed in these records incude rape, murder, kidnapping, and many listings for "UDCS," which appears to be an acronym for Unlawful Distribution of a Controlled Substance, among others. We see two instances of "bomb threat" or "bomb" in the list that covers 2009 through 2014. 

The documents posted on Muckrock also include TPD policies and procedures for determining cell phone geo-location data following 911 calls. Those policies contain no specific mentions of the technology in question, but they do lay out general terms for the police to obtain geolocation data from cell phones in other instances, including the need for a court order or a threat of immediate danger. If we're reading the records right, it appears that each instance listed either has a court order or was a case of imminent threat (kidnapping, etc).

What strikes us in this story is the mismatch between the way the need for the equipment is described, and the way it appears to be used. It's also interesting that the names of the technology being purchased don't show up in any of the requests. When Environmental Services requests purchases related to wastewater treatment or solid waste pick-up, we get the names of the processing components or vehicles in question, but the TPD requests for this surveillance technology has been scrubbed clean of any mention of the name, or of anything that remotely resembles a reference to surveillance.

We know from personal experience that investigating every item on every City agenda can be more than a full-time job. Your word for the day is "obfuscate."

Read more on Kate Martin's investigation from the TNT.

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