Outlines of a National Surveillance Network
The art of trying to visualize federal activities with the use of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests is somewhat like taking a dozen photos of a city scene through a straw. Some objects can be seen. Some can be inferred. A few can be surmised.
Thus it is with the results of our FOIA request filed more than a year ago asking the Department of Justice to release records on its use of cell-site simulator technology. These are devices that give the government the ability to conduct sweeping dragnets of the metadata, location, text messages and more from the cellphones of people within a geofenced area.
We know, thanks to the work of the American Civil Liberties Union, that as of 2018 at least 14 federal agencies and 75 state and local agencies were using these cell-site simulators, often called “stingrays.” Our FOIA request confirmed that there was a flurry of activity with the Department of Justice handing out Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) to enable municipalities to acquire stingrays beginning a decade ago. We saw that JAG grants for cell-site simulators went to large entities, like Miami/Dade County and the Milwaukee Police Department, as well as to smaller cities like Fresno and Victorville in California.
What popped out at us were all the other Fourth Amendment-compromising technologies being subsidized. Local governments received:
Like taking photos through a straw, these are only the objects that can be seen. Many of these reports are old, dating back to 2011. DOJ has yet to respond to PPSA’s request for non-disclosure agreements that restrict the ability of state and local law enforcement agencies to reveal the source of evidence obtained from a cell-site simulator, even in court.
But the findings of this FOIA request are significant.
“We can infer, just from these glimpses, that the federal government has long been intent on supplying state and local police with the means to follow Americans from the air, from camera networks that go from block to block, by the GPS beacons in our phones, while using software to identify us by our faces,” said Gene Schaerr, PPSA general counsel. “Add to all that the highly personal data that can be swept from our cellphones, and we can see that the federal government is working through state and local law enforcement to create a near-ubiquitous national surveillance network.”