At the insistence of federal law enforcement officials, Florida police concealed use of a device that can track suspected criminals’ cellphones, reports the Wall Street Journal. The American Civil Liberties Union obtained a 2009 email chain under a public-records request that shed light on the government’s efforts to keep the details of a surveillance tool known as a “stingray” out of the public eye. The tool works by mimicking a cellphone tower, allowing it to connect with cellphones and determine their location.
A law-enforcement official said in the emails that secrecy was needed to prevent criminals from learning how to circumvent the device. Privacy advocates say the government is also evading legal challenges to the tool, which is often used without a search warrant. “The effect of what they’re doing is to affirmatively mislead judges and criminal defense attorneys and to eliminate defendants’ abilities to bring constitutional challenges to unlawful surveillance practices,” said ACLU lawyer Nathan Freed Wessler. No federal appeals court has reviewed the legality of stingrays. Appeals courts are divided on whether police need a warrant to get records from a carrier when a suspect’s cellphone connects to a tower.