Charlotte-Mecklenburg police use a secretive surveillance system that collects information from cellphones and wireless devices to locate crime suspects but also gathers data from innocent people, the Charlotte Observer reports. For eight years, the police department has owned portable equipment that mimics a cell tower and allows officers to learn the serial numbers, location and other information about nearby phones and laptop computers and tablets that connect to a cellular network.
The surveillance equipment, known by names like StingRay, Hailstorm, AmberJack or TriggerFish, has been used by the military and federal agencies since the 1990s to hunt down terrorists. Interviews and documents collected from Freedom of Information Act requests show the police department uses the technology on a weekly basis to track suspects in violent felonies, kidnappings and missing persons cases. Privacy groups say the surveillance is so intrusive that it violates the Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. The technology, they say, is powerful enough to penetrate a home's walls. The groups note the public cannot find out how many local police agencies own the technology, how often they use it or what happens to the phone data that officers capture from bystanders.