Police Secretly Track Cellphones to Solve Routine Crimes

Baltimore's police are prolific stingray users. In April, Baltimore Det. Emmanuel Cabreja testified that officers had used cell-site simulators more than 4,300 times since 2007, a figure that easily dwarfs the tallies reported by the few police departments that have provided any public details at all. The police have not previously identified the crimes they used the device to investigate or the people they arrested as a result. (Photo: Patrick Semansky, AP)
This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows the StingRay II, manufactured by Harris Corporation, of Melbourne, Fla., a cellular site simulator used for surveillance purposes. A police officer testified Wednesday, April 8, 2015, that the Baltimore Police Department has used Hailstorm, a upgraded version of the StringRay surveillance device, 4,300 times and believes it is under orders by the U.S. government to withhold evidence from criminal trials and ignore subpoenas in cases where the device is used. (AP Photo/U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)
This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows the StingRay II, manufactured by Harris Corporation, of Melbourne, Fla., a cellular site simulator used for surveillance purposes. (AP Photo/U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

Brad Heath, USA TODAY

 
BALTIMORE (USA Today) — The crime itself was ordinary: Someone smashed the back window of a parked car one evening and ran off with a cellphone. What was unusual was how the police hunted the thief.

Detectives did it by secretly using one of the government’s most powerful phone surveillance tools — capable of intercepting data from hundreds of people’s cellphones at a time — to track the phone, and with it their suspect, to the doorway of a public housing complex. They used it to search for a car thief, too. And a woman who made a string of harassing phone calls.

In one case after another, USA TODAY found police in Baltimore and other cities used the phone tracker, commonly known as a stingray, to locate the perpetrators of routine street crimes and frequently concealed that fact from the suspects, their lawyers and even judges. In the process, they quietly transformed a form of surveillance billed as a tool to hunt terrorists and kidnappers into a staple of everyday policing.

 

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