Maryland State Police acquired secret cellphone tracking technology about six years ago and have made it available for use by other law enforcement agencies in the state, according to testimony given Thursday before a Maryland House committee.
But state police appear to be sparingly using the secretive cell-site simulator devices, often known by the brand name Stingray. They deployed the devices 50 times in 2015 and six times this year, according to Sgt. Tom Bonin, who testified Thursday against legislation that would create further limits and disclosure requirements for agencies that use them.
In one such instance, Sgt. Bonin said state police deployed a cell-site simulator to help locate a 14-year-old girl who had run away from home five days earlier. Sgt. Bonin said the girl was found at the home of a 28-year-old sex offender, who had picked her up at a convenience store.
The Baltimore Police Department, on the other hand, may be the most prolific user of cell-site simulators in the state. The department reportedly has used such secretive devices to track the location of suspects’ cellphones at least 4,300 times since 2007, often to track individuals suspected of routine crimes.
Baltimore Police Lt. Michael Fries said at Thursday’s hearing that police for years have followed a policy of using the devices to track stolen cellphones in response to the city’s high crime rates.
“In an armed robbery, if it’s a phone that’s taken, we get a court order immediately,” Lt. Fries said, adding that last year police were able to recover 167 cellphones through the tactic.
The forthrightness with which police officials discussed the frequency and standards by which they use cellphone tracking devices surprised civil rights advocates, who have been working for years to pry information about their use from law enforcement officials.
“I was amazed with the candor in which they came forward,” said Sara Love, public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
Nondisclosure agreements between the FBI and police departments that purchase Stingrays and other cell-site simulator devices require those agencies to withhold information about their use, even instructing the agencies to drop criminal cases rather than reveal information about the technology. As a result, up until recently, most use of the technology has been kept quiet.
The simulators work by mimicking cell towers to trick cellphones to connect to them, enabling investigators to obtain identifying information about the phones and their precise locations.
Maryland legislators passed a law in 2014 that required police departments to obtain court orders authorizing them to seek real-time location information from an electronic device.
Delegate Charles Sydnor, Baltimore County Democrat, has proposed new provisions that would require police to explicitly disclose that they are using cell-site simulators in court order applications submitted to judges.
The proposal also requires a higher level of disclosure by police of their use of the devices and limits some of the ways in which they can use them. It would ban use of cell-site simulators in residential areas in an “exploratory manner” when the location of a cellphone is unknown, require police to delete any data collected from bystanders’ cellphones within 48 hours and require all agencies to annually report the frequency of their use of the devices.
“I’m not trying to stop them from using this. I can see its utility,” Mr. Sydnor said. “I just want them to acknowledge that it’s a search and get a warrant.”
Police officials, who all testified against the legislation, said that as more has been publicly disclosed about the devices, they have adopted new protocols for their use that already fall in line with many of the proposals.
In a landmark ruling issued this month, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that barred prosecutors from using evidence discovered through the Baltimore Police Department’s warrantless use of cellphone tracking technology. Last year, the Justice Department issued a memo that makes clear that federal officers are required to obtain search warrants supported by probable cause before using the devices.
Sgt. Bonin said the state police have always disclosed to judges that they were using cell location devices.
“But in light of the recent DOJ policy, most of the department [has] here proactively added in two paragraphs to be more descriptive about what was going on,” he said.
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