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Baltimore – The crime itself was common: someone smashed the rear window of a parked car one night and escaped with a mobile phone. What was unusual was how the police chased after the thief.
Investigators did this by using the secrecy of one of the government’s most powerful phone surveillance tools — capable of capturing data from hundreds of people’s cell phones at once — to trace the phone, and with the suspect, to the entrance to a public housing complex. They used it to find a car thief, too. A woman made a series of annoying phone calls.
Police Tracking Cell Phones
In case after case, US TODAY has found that police in Baltimore and other cities have used a phone tracker, often known as stingrays, to identify the perpetrators of routine street crimes, often hiding it from suspects, their attorneys and even judges. . In the process, they quietly transformed a form of surveillance that was a tool for tracking terrorists and kidnappers into a staple of daily policing.
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Suitcase-sized tracking systems, which can cost up to $400,000, allow police to locate a phone a few meters away by posing as a cell phone tower. In the process, they can pick up information from the phones of anyone else nearby, including innocent bystanders. They do not capture the content of communications.
Dozens of police departments from Miami to Los Angeles have similar units. A survey by US media network TODAY identified more than 35 of them in 2013 and 2014, and the ACLU found 18 more. When and how the police used these devices is largely a mystery, in part because the FBI swore them to be classified.
Police and court records in Baltimore provide a partial answer. USA TODAY obtained a police surveillance record and matched it with court documents to paint the broadest picture yet of how these devices were used. The documents show that city police used stings to catch everyone from murderers to petty thieves, that authorities regularly concealed or concealed that surveillance when suspects were brought to court, and that many detainees have not been charged.
Defense attorneys in charge of many of these cases said they didn’t know stingrays were used until US TODAY contacted them, even though state law requires them to be informed of the electronic surveillance.
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Said Stephen Mercer, head of the investigation. For the Maryland public defender, he said.
Prosecutors said they sometimes stand in the dark. “When our prosecutors learned that a detective used a cellular promoter, it is disclosed, but we trust the Police Department will provide us with that information,” said Tami Brown, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Attorney General. “We are currently working with the police department to better improve the process of obtaining this information in order to comply with the law.”
Baltimore is not alone. Tallahassee police used their stinging flags to track down a woman who was wanted for check fraud, according to records submitted to the ACLU last year. Tacoma, Washington, used its police to try to find a stolen laptop, according to records posted on the Muckrock website. Other administrations have acknowledged that they plan to use stingrays to solve street crimes.
As surveillance became more common—and more popular—state and federal lawmakers moved to set new limits on the conditions under which it could be used. Some states require police to obtain a search warrant before they can use stingrays, and Congress is considering a similar rule for the federal government.
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Federal officials say stingrays allow them to track down dangerous criminals. “This is how we find killers,” FBI Director James Comey said last year. “This is how we find kidnappers. This is how we find drug dealers. This is how we find missing children. This is how we find pedophiles.”
At least in Baltimore, that’s how police tracked down the man whose suspects stole a phone from the back seat of a car parked outside the city’s central detention facility in 2009. Two days after the theft, an officer in a lawsuit said investigators found Daniel Freeman holding the phone in the entrance to an apartment complex General in East Baltimore. The court archives did not say how the investigators knew they were looking for the phone there, but the police surveillance record indicates that they used a stinging ray.
“The problem is you can’t have both directions. You can’t be a top-secret national security terrorist and then use it to solve petty crimes,” said Hani Fakhoury, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
FBI spokesman Chris Allen said the agency does not have the authority to tell police departments how to use stingrays. It has asked them to keep this use secret, and has asked them to sign confidentiality agreements prohibiting officials from disclosing how phone tracking technology works. Baltimore police officers signed one in 2011.
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Baltimore Police is a prolific rock user. In April it was. Emmanuel Cabriga has testified that officers have used mobile location simulators more than 4,300 times since 2007, a number that overshadows figures reported by the few police departments that have released details about their use. The police have not previously identified the crimes they used the device to investigate or who they arrested as a result.
By matching court documents and surveillance record from the police’s advanced technical team, USA TODAY identified 837 criminal cases in which police indicated they used a mobile tower simulator. The record does not explicitly refer to cell simulators, but investigators and police spokesperson, Det. Jeremy Silbert, confirmed the language officers used in the register to refer to the use of stingrays.
Among these cases are some of the most serious crimes the police have been asked to investigate – and some are among the smallest.
In 2010, police used Ray’s stinger to track down a man suspected of kidnapping his girlfriend’s two daughters, ages 3 and 5, and demanded half of her $6,000 in taxes be refunded as ransom “for the life of her eldest daughter.” In text messages, he threatened to throw the eldest daughter off a bridge if he did not get the money, according to the court minutes. The investigators soon found the children unharmed. Prosecutors soon dropped kidnapping charges against the man, Kwame Ositoto; He was only convicted of misdemeanor misuse of the phone. The prosecutor did not explain this decision.
Police Secretly Track Cellphones To Solve Routine Crimes
Officers rely on phone company reports to track a suspect’s phone to a specific neighborhood, then use the tracking device, known as a hailstorm, to find his location. In a lawsuit in 2013, an officer said that TAT investigators received 40 hours of training in the use of the tracker and another eight hours of training in “cellular theory” from the United States. Secret Service.
The team’s record shows that police have used mobile phone simulators in at least 176 murders, 118 shootings and 47 rape cases since 2008. They usually search for suspects, but sometimes records show that they used the devices to track witnesses. By far, the most common use has been to solve burglaries. Rockers are particularly well suited for this job because thieves often take victims’ phones.
“We’re walking around every day,” said an officer in charge of the monitoring unit, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the department’s confidentiality statement with the FBI. “We deal with a lot of people, and we finalize a lot of cases.”
Not all of these cases are significant. Records show that police used a mobile phone simulator to track down a woman accused of stealing credit cards from a garage and using them to pay two months’ rent on a self-storage device. They used it to search for a stolen car and to find a woman who had sent hundreds of “threatening and annoying” text messages to a Baltimore man. In each case, the prosecution eventually dropped the charges or agreed to a diversion before trial.
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In 2011, investigators used Ray’s stinger to try to find a man who took his wife’s cell phone during an argument and told her, “If you don’t want to talk to me, you won’t talk to anyone,” according to court records, a crime watchdog classified as theft. The police tracked the phone that day, but by that time it had already been returned to his wife, so they tracked it back to her home.
The police did not find Jarrod Lisan until he appeared in court a month and a half later, when the case was dropped. The tongue could not be reached for comment.
Nathan Whistler, an ACLU attorney, said Baltimore’s use is consistent with how police use cell tracing in other cities, albeit on a much larger scale. “We know it was bought a lot and used a lot,” he said. “In the few sections we’ve seen [recordings from], they are used for a wide variety of investigations.”
Rochelle Ritchie, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore attorney general, couldn’t do it
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