PPSA, ACLU Freedom of Information Act Disclosures Reveal Feds Continue to Coach Agencies and Police on Hiding Stingray Use
“Fruit of a Poisonous Tree”
FBI documents acquired through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by PPSA and the American Civil Liberties Union show how authorities continue to conceal information about how stingray technology is really being used. The downstream effect of this deception likely results in defendants being denied the ability to know how a case was constructed against them, degrading their right to a fair trial.
Dozens of federal and state agencies have benefitted from the generosity of the Department of Justice in sharing with state and local police cell-site simulators, popularly known by the brand name “Stingrays.” These devices trick cellphones into revealing their owners’ locations and other sensitive, personal information.
An email from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), released today by PPSA, one ATF official writes to another:
“To remain consistent with our DOJ Partner, in this case, the USMS (U.S. Marshall Service) since they are the largest user of this technology, we respectfully request that this technique not be disclosed in an affidavit.”
ACLU’s FOIA shows the same instructions from the federal government imposed in nondisclosure agreements on police departments when they ask for this technology to track suspects. These contracts don’t beat around the bush. They explicitly require police departments to withhold information about stingrays and their usage from defendants and lawyers. The FBI argues that such secrecy is required to prevent revealing information that would enable criminals to “thwart law enforcement efforts.”
But what’s the big secret? Despite the clandestine nature of this federal/local partnership program, stingray technology and its capabilities have been an open secret for years now. This technology was depicted under another brand name – “triggerfish” –on season three of HBO’s The Wire. That was in 2004. Could the real secret be that police departments are conspiring with the FBI to conceal the use of privacy-invading technology to give prosecutors an unfair, “backdoor” advantage in their cases?
PPSA has often reported the ways in which federal or state agencies routinely circumvent constitutional privacy protections. One well-known method is the parallel construction of evidence, in which prosecutors leverage illicitly gained knowledge to turn up evidence from a source acceptable in court. It is well established legal doctrine that illicit evidence, the “fruit of the poisonous tree,” should not be admissible. But who knows what is poisonous if the tree is hidden?
The acquired federal documents actually spell out how parallel construction should work – advising the police to pursue “additional and independent investigative means and methods” to obtain evidence collected through use of a cell-site simulator.
The suggestions on how to accomplish such secrecy were redacted by the FBI. The Bureau argues that revealing information about stingrays would have a “significant detrimental impact on the national security of the United States.” The revelation of even minor details is so heavily restricted that police have dropped charges against a suspect rather than unveil information in open court.
“The important question posed by privacy advocates is why are police departments and the FBI going to such lengths to conceal information about a technology that is public knowledge?” asked Bob Goodlatte, former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and PPSA Senior Policy Advisor. “The capabilities of stingrays are well-known, with knowledge of their deployment on popular television almost twenty years ago.
“Yet the government still insists that the basics of stingray use is a precious national secret,” Goodlatte said. “Congress should demand to know if there is any basis at all for these non-disclosure agreements – and how common parallel construction really is in practice.”