Police in many cities are using phone trackers known as stingrays to locate the perpetrators of routine street crimes and frequently concealed that fact from the suspects, their lawyers and judges, reports USA Today. In the process, they transformed a form of surveillance billed as a tool to hunt terrorists and kidnappers into a staple of everyday policing. The suitcase-size tracking systems, which cost up to $400,000, allow the police to pinpoint a phone's location within a few yards by posing as a cell tower. In the process, they can intercept information from the phones of nearly everyone else who happens to be nearby, including innocent bystanders. They do not intercept the content of any communications.
When and how the police have used those devices is mostly a mystery; the FBI swore them to secrecy. In Baltimore, USA Today obtained a police surveillance log and matched it with court files to paint the broadest picture yet of how the devices have been used. The records show that police used stingrays to catch everyone from killers to petty thieves, that the authorities regularly hid or obscured that surveillance once suspects got to court and that many of those they arrested were never prosecuted. Defense attorneys assigned to many of those cases said they did not know a stingray had been used until they were asked by USA Today, even though state law requires that they be told about electronic surveillance. “I am astounded at the extent to which police have been so aggressively using this technology, how long they've been using it and the extent to which they have gone to create ruses to shield that use,” said Stephen Mercer, chief of forensics for Maryland's public defenders.