San Diego Police: Tell Us About Your Stingray Cell Phone Spy System

by on December 22, 2014 · 2 comments

in Civil Rights, History, Media, San Diego

Police gps trackerBy Doug Porter

A lawsuit filed by the First Amendment Coalition aimed at getting the San Diego Police Department to disclose how it uses cell phone tower simulators to collect data has been covered by multiple local news outlets over the past days.

Two things strike me in studying these accounts: a mostly blind eye towards how this latest news fits into a pattern of opaqueness by the SDPD and a lack of understanding about the true nature of the technology in question.

Today I’ll provide some analysis and information on those two points.

Behind the Blue Curtain

The past year started off with William Lansdowne announcing his retirement. Years worth of accusations about police misconduct could no longer be explained away with the ‘few bad apples’ excuse. The City of San Diego was facing multiple lawsuits, one of which threatened to reveal internal documents and testimony pointing towards an ethically and morally corrupt culture within the department.

Morale within the police force was lower than low, with honest officers burdened with the taint of misconduct being revealed almost on a daily basis.

police sex assaultYears of budget cuts, pay freezes and the carefully nurtured public perception that public employees were somehow responsible for budget shortfalls led to experienced cops leaving the force for higher paying positions in other locales. The department was down about 200 positions due to unfilled vacancies.

The irony of the situation was that one of their own, Jerry Sanders, was mayor for most of this period, creating a problem for the kind of public awareness campaign needed for officers to make their case. After all, a former chief of police wouldn’t shortchange law enforcement, would he?

With the announcement that Shelly Zimmerman would be taking the helm at the department, incoming Mayor Kevin Faulconer (who hadn’t even been sworn into office yet) reaped a public relations bonanza. San Diego had its first woman police chief. She’d worked with vice, narcotics, internal affairs and community relations, meaning she’d hit the ground running to solve problems in the department. Zimmerman was also media friendly, meaning the press could be persuaded to generate uncritical SDPD stories.

Faulconer’s announcement came as somewhat of a surprise to then-interim Mayor Todd Gloria, who’d hoped for a nationwide search to find a new chief. Finding an outside candidate for the job could have meant bringing in someone who wasn’t a creature of the department’s culture, one that had accommodated past misconduct.

The Fox Guarding the Henhouse

Ex-police Chief Lansdowne

Ex-police Chief Lansdowne

At the press event announcing her appointment Zimmerman announced her support of an outside audit of the police department. Later on in the year it would turn out this this ‘independent’ audit was voluntary, meaning they had no subpoena powers and could not compel testimony of reluctant witnesses.

An attorney representing sexual assault victims of former police Officer Anthony Arevalos pointed out a flaw in the audit, namely that the people in charge of the investigation had ties to the SDPD.

From 10 News:

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) is in charge of the investigation, with the federal government footing the bill.

Team 10 confirmed PERF has connections to former San Diego Police Chiefs Jerry Sanders and William Lansdowne. Both served on PERF’s board of directors….

…A Voice of San Diego article says Sanders and Lansdowne were both treasurers for PERF. Lansdowne also taught a management class for the firm.

The results of this so-called independent audit aren’t expected anytime soon. It would be wise not to expect too much, other than an affirmation that bad things happened and it’s all better now. Bada-Bing, Bada-Boom. Problem solved.

Body Cams are for Evidence, Not Transparency

duluth-police-body-camera-close-up-wdio-ss-cropThe equipping of SDPD officers with body cameras was initiated following a series of articles at Voice of San Diego on racial profiling. What started out as an upcoming trial run under former chief Landsdowne became a full-fledged department wide program by last June, as the City Council approved a $4 million outlay to purchase several hundred body cameras.

After being hailed as step towards transparency in the SDPD’s dealings with the public during the Landsdowne era, it now turns out the cameras are to be primarily used to collect evidence.

From Voice of San Diego:

Two weeks ago, when protests in City Heights raged after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman assured residents that there was a record of everything that happened. SDPD officers were wearing their new body cameras, she said.

“It all boils down to community trust,” Zimmerman told KPBS.

But here’s the thing about those videos. Once again, you aren’t allowed to see them. The police department denied our formal records request for the protest footage.

On KPBS and elsewhere, Zimmerman said she would consider making police body camera videos public in certain circumstances, such as the shooting in Ferguson that left Michael Brown dead at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson. But it’s becoming clear that would only happen in the most extreme situations. So far Zimmerman has denied requests to make camera footage available when officers were involved in shootings and these protests.

We Can’t Hear You Now (Yet)

So it’s in this context that the latest lawsuit aimed at the SDPD should be examined.

From, an publication specializing in information technology:

first-amndment-cltnThe First Amendment Coalition, based in San Rafael, just north of San Francisco, filed a state public records request to the police on October 8, 2014, specifically asking for, among other documents:

Records pertaining to the Southern California police department’s possession and use of a cellular phone surveillance device manufactured by Harris Corp. and referred to as an IMSI-catcher (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) or Stingray.These records should include:

  1. a) emails, purchasing orders, receipts, grant applications and training materials; and
  2. b) documents sufficient to show guidelines, procedures, or restrictions on the San Diego Police Department’s use of the device;
  3. c) for the past six months, copies of any declarations/affidavits, motions, forms or other legal documents submitted to a judge or magistrate to obtain judicial authorization for use of the device.

According to the suit, which was filed on Tuesday, the SDPD responded with a two-page heavily redacted document, claiming a legal justification for the redactions.

An article on inewsource/KPBS reveals the legal justification to be an order from U.S. Department of Justice directing the city not to disclose information about the device.

Now the lawsuit against the SDPD isn’t asking to look at any of the data the SDPD has collected or how these devices work. They’re just asking for insight into the policies about how this technology is being deployed.

Apparently even this information is a deep dark secret. According to Arstechnica, “local prosecutors in a Baltimore robbery case even dropped key evidence that stemmed from stingray use rather than allow a detective to fully disclose how the device was used.”

How This Technology Works

IMSI PhotoBy way of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Deeplinks blog, here’s a short explanation of how these devices work containing a link for those readers who may be more technically inclined:

The Stingray is a brand name of an IMSI catcher targeted and sold to law enforcement. A Stingray works by masquerading as a cell phone tower—to which your mobile phone sends signals to every 7 to 15 seconds whether you are on a call or not— and tricks your phone into connecting to it. As a result, the government can figure out who, when and to where you are calling, the precise location of every device within the range, and with some devices, even capture the content of your conversations. (Read the Wall Street Journal’s detailed explanation for more.)

Given the breadth of information that it can stealthily obtain, the government prefers the public and judges alike not know exactly how Stingrays work and they have even argued in court that it should be able to keep its use of the technology secret.

A CyberSpy’s Sharper Image Catalogue

The bad guys, by the way, already have access to this technology. A leaked National Security Agency gadget catalog appeared on the website of Der Spiegel just about a year ago. It does not to appear to have come from whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

From a article in November about this year’s Defcon, the hacker conference in Las Vegas:

Little domes on vehicles equipped with ISMI technology

Little domes on vehicles equipped with ISMI technology

It wasn’t clear how the catalog was leaked, but after the debacle over the NSA’s tapping of Angela Merkel’s “handy,” the decision to publish the document in Germany must have left more than a few American officials—and technology executives—grimacing.

Five thousand miles away in Colorado, however, Michael Ossmann was delighted. Ossmann had spent much of his career taking apart, designing, and hacking together radio electronics himself, mainly in the hope of trying to find their vulnerabilities and figure out how to protect them from people who might want to interfere with or spy on them.

To him, the document was like a late Christmas present—a kind of cyberspy’s Sharper Image catalog, chock full of capabilities and code names that would not disappoint fans of espionage literature.

There’s a bugged set of mobile phones called PICASSO that can secretly record audio at any time (cost: $2,000), and software called MONKEYCALENDAR that transmits a mobile phone’s location by hidden text message ($0). A USB plug codenamed COTTONMOUTH is designed to capture data as soon as it’s plugged in to a device (as much as $1.25 million for 50 of them), and CANDYGRAM, a set of fake base stations for hijacking cell phone calls, can be yours for a mere $40,000 apiece (if you’re the right “you”).

Why You Should Be Concerned

According to the inewsource/KPBS story:

At least 47 local, state and federal agencies in at least 19 states have them at their disposal. In California, according to news reports, agencies in Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Francisco and San Jose all use Stingrays.

There’s already a pattern of misuse appearing. From another article at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Deeplinks blog, which calls the Stingray the digital equivalent of ‘general warrants’ used by pre-revolutionary British soldiers to search colonists homes:

Recently, LA Weekly reported the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) got a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant in 2006 to buy a stingray. The original grant request said it would be used for “regional terrorism investigations.” Instead LAPD has been using it for just about any investigation imaginable.

In just a four month period in 2012, according to documents obtained by the First Amendment Coalition, the LAPD has used the device at least 21 times in “far more routine” criminal investigations. The LA Weekly reported Stingrays “were tapped for more than 13 percent of the 155 ‘cellular phone investigation cases’ that Los Angeles police conducted between June and September last year.” These included burglary, drug and murder cases.

Of course, we’ve seen this pattern over and over and over. The government uses “terrorism” as a catalyst to gain some powerful new surveillance tool or ability, and then turns around and uses it on ordinary citizens, severely infringing on their civil liberties in the process.

There are reports (unconfirmed as far as I can tell) that security forces in England have used Stingray-type devices to electronically identify protest participants. And, of course, this is but a less sophisticated version of the technology being used by military/intelligence teams for F3 (Find, Fix and Finish) drone operations in Yemen and other countries. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what “finish” means.

I’ll give the closing argument to the First Amendment coalition, from the UT-San Diego article:

“Without having basic information about whether they even have the technology, let alone how they’re using it… how do we have that conversation about the merits of surveilling citizens,” said coalition Attorney Kelly Aviles.

The civil rights group, which promotes free speech, open and accountable government and public engagement in civic affairs, asserts that California law requires the department to provide such information as procedures governing the technology’s use, any warrants sought in connection with the device and training materials.


This is an excerpt from Doug Porter’s column at San Diego Free Press, our online media partner.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Old Hermit Dave December 29, 2014 at 8:11 pm

This whole idea of the Government getting information on the Charlie Lunch Buckets using the Stingray, is falling down funny. For sure some day Government employes forced to listen to all these calls will file Gitmo Torture charges because having to listen to the Ignorant Masses phone calls for hours and hours is for sure TORTURE.


John January 5, 2015 at 9:47 pm

So you have no problem with the creation of another level of government surveillance intrusion with all its inevitable mission creep abuses because you assume everyones life is as uneventful as yours?
Get real.
And get educated. The idea that government agents must actually scrutinize data mined content personally to find alleged crimes is rapidly going to be a thing of the past. Computers are so powerful now and software advanced enough that algorithms are used which put certain words and phrases together that they are competant enough to catch things automatically.
No there is a real problem with these continued privacy abuses by agencies doing them withoutpublic debate first. Who do they think they are working for? Why do you think they keep this stuff under wraps as long as they can? It is because they know it is wrong and we would scream bloody murder if we knew.
I am curious on whether the investigators know anything about local agencies using the backscsatter xray vans that as of several years ago had appx 500 units shipped(not sure if that was globally ir just the US)
Los Angeles and NYC were of course named as using them. Clearly illegal to be used without a warrant against domestic dwellings (kyllo vs US SCOTUS 2000) they claimed they would only be used for terrorism reasons on vehicles. They can count the change in your pocket at a good distance through the wall.


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