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9 Calif. law enforcement agencies connected to cellphone spying technology

Several Northern California law enforcement agencies use StingRays - cellphone spying technology
Photo of a StingRay device. It mimics a cellphone tower and relays cellphone usage information to law enforcement.

News10 submitted numerous public records requests to every major law enforcement agency in Northern California to find out which departments are using StingRay technology. A StingRay is a device law enforcement uses to track people and collect real time data from every cellphone within a certain radius.

MORE: Cellphone spying technology being used throughout Northern California

Some agencies provided documentation, but none would discuss how StingRays work, or even admit they have them. However, records show at least seven Northern California agencies have the technology and two more just received grants to buy it in 2014.

San Jose Police Department

San Jose Police Department provided News10 with documentation that provided insight into what agencies have the technology and why they want it.

A 2012 grant application submitted to the Bay Area Urban Area Shield Initiative (UASI), which was approved, said San Jose police requested feedback from numerous other agencies that already use StingRays.

"Research of the product included testing by San Jose Police and technology and equipment feedback from the U.S. Marshals Service, (REDACTED), the Oakland Police Department, the Sacramento Sheriff's Department, the San Diego Sheriff's Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. This technology is in use at the law enforcement agencies listed [above]," the application states.

They explain how the surveillance system would be used in conjunction with Oakland and San Francisco police in another section of the grant application.

"We will work with the Fusion Center to partner with San Francisco and Oakland to ensure we have the ability to cover all of the Bay Area in deploying cellphone tracking technology in any region of the Bay Area at a moment's notice."

Terrorism is used as the primary justification for purchasing StingRay technology in every grant application obtained by News10. San Jose police, Fremont police, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office and Oakland police say a StingRay could be used to track and disrupt terrorist networks and protect critical infrastructure.

However, arrest records from Oakland and Los Angeles show that StingRays are being used for routine police work. Lye says the potential for "mission creep" is concerning.

"Mission creep is an unfortunate but extremely common phenomenon with surveillance technology," she said. "By 'mission creep,' I mean the phenomenon in which one purpose is offered to justify the collection of the data, but the data is ultimately used for many other entirely separate purposes."

Purchase orders, almost entirely redacted, show the San Jose Police Department purchased StingRay technology in 2013, though they have not provided any information on StingRay-related arrests. They paid almost $500,000, using Bay Area UASI funds secured in 2011 and 2012. $250,000 from the 2011 went to the purchase of surveillance equipment. $250,000 from the 2012 grant funded a "surveillance system," a $42,000 surveillance vehicle and a $20,000 installation fee. It also paid for four training sessions in Melbourne, Florida.

It's impossible to know the exact models purchased by the department because of the secret nature of the contract.

"The Harris (REDACTED) equipment is proprietary and used for surveillance missions," the agreement reads. "Its capabilities can only be discussed with sworn law enforcement officers, the military or federal government. This equipment's capabilities are not for public knowledge and are protected under non-disclosure agreements as well as Title 18 USC 2512."

Oakland Police Department

Oakland police may have been the first Northern California law enforcement agency to purchase a StingRay. A Criminal Investigation Division report says the Targeted Enforcement Task Force made 21 "Electronic Surveillance (StingRay) arrests" in 2007.

They arrested 19 more people in 2008 and another 19 in 2009 using a StingRay, for crimes including homicide, attempted murder, kidnapping and robbery. Training logs show one Oakland police employee received 40 hours of training on a StingRay in 2008, and another employee received 40 hours of training in 2010.

A purchase order shows Harris Corporation had a $13,500 maintenance contract with Oakland police to maintain "StingRay S/N 303" in 2009.

Still, Oakland police would not admit to owning a StingRay, even when presented with a number of records showing otherwise.

"Thank you again for your interest in the Oakland Police Department," said police spokesperson Johnna Watson in an email. "We cordially decline to comment further regarding your story."

San Francisco Police Department

The San Francisco Police Department purchased a StingRay or a similar Harris product in 2009, according to Francis Zamora, the public information officer for the Bay Area UASI.

"Please note that the SFPD purchased this equipment using 2009 grant funds, but staff was unable to locate the request or approval date," said Zamora in an email.

News10 still has pending records requests with the City of San Francisco that we hope will shed more light on the city's use of StingRay technology. They promise to send that grant application over if they ever do find it.

Sacramento County Sheriff's Department

The Sacramento Sheriff's Department was listed as an agency that uses StingRay technology in San Jose's grant application, but the department won't openly discuss it.

A records request for any contracts, purchase orders and grant applications for Harris products was returned with only a copy of a single purchase order. That was for an $11,500 "High Powered Filtered 25W PA Kit", which can be used to amplify the power or range of a StingRay or similar product.

However, the department said they had no records of purchasing a StingRay or any other product from Harris, which didn't match what San Jose police said.

News10 went back to the sheriff's department for an explanation and received a statement about non-disclosure agreements and an email saying they had provided all the responsive documents they had.

"While I am not familiar with what San Jose has said, my understanding is that the acquisition or use of this technology comes with a strict non-disclosure requirement," said Undersheriff James Lewis in an emailed statement. "Therefore it would be inappropriate for us to comment about any agency that may be using the technology."

RELATED STORY: Cellphone spying technology being used throughout Northern California

News10 has another pending records request with the department. We were told it would be considered by their legal department this week.

Alameda County District Attorney's Office, Fremont Police and Oakland Police

Although Oakland police is connected to StingRays as far back as 2007, they appear on a 2014 grant application requesting more federal funds for the technology. The 2014 grant application, recently approved, means the Alameda County DA's Office, Fremont police and Oakland police will operate at least one StingRay device in a joint partnership.

Beyond California

Our partners at USA Today have confirmed that at least 25 other local police agencies across the country are using StingRays or similar devices. Others refused to provide records, citing non-disclosure agreements with the Harris Corporation. News10 has several other pending records requests related to StingRay technology, and we will update the story as we learn more.

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