The debate over the Baltimore Police Department’s use of a device that tracks cellphones has a new front.
Groups including a think tank and civil rights organizations filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission that challenges police use of the stingray.
The devices, which were used secretly for eight years before an officer was ordered to come clean in court last year, mimic cellphone towers to help police find cellphones. They are used to track suspects, as well as missing people. The digital privacy controversy surrounding the Harris Corporation-made devices stems from the fact that the devices sweep up other cellphone data in the vicinity of the targeted phone.
A Maryland court threw out evidence obtained via stingray, but police have argued before the legislature that the data only includes unique identifiers, and is not saved.
Now federal law is entering the equation. The complaint accuses the Baltimore police violates the Communications Act. Basically, it comes down to the stingray’s use of the wireless spectrum in two ways:
- BPD does not get proper authorization to transmit over a specific radio frequency that are licensed to cellphone companies;
- Use of the stingray interferes with the cellular network, which could disrupt 911 calls.
The complaint also connects the use of the stingray to BPD’s pattern of racially biased policing, which was spelled out last week in a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report. The stingray is frequently used in predominantly black neighborhoods, so their spectrum is disproportionately affected, the organizations state.
“For far too long, the Baltimore City Police Department has made a frequent habit out of flouting federal spectrum law and disrupting availability of the cellular network to Black communities in Baltimore,” said Laura Moy, a Georgetown University law professor who is representing the organizations in the complaint. The case was filed by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, the Center for Media Justice and Color of Change.
Showing Baltimore’s place at the center of the stingray debate, the complaint calls on the FCC to issue a ruling that would also apply to other police departments where the stingray is used.
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