Mobile Communications

FCC urged to crack down on Baltimore police for using phone trackers

Three civil rights groups have filed a formal complaint against Baltimore City police for using cell site simulator technology to investigate potential crimes, calling the process racially biased and unauthorized.

The groups called the use of Stingray phone tracker technology "racially discriminatory," and even a disruption of emergency calling services, according to the complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) early today.

The 37-page complaint by the Center for Media Justice, Color Of Change and the Open Technology Institute at New America calls on the FCC to enforce two sections of the Communications Act. That act requires the police to obtain a federal license to operate cell site (CS) simulator equipment on frequency bands that are exclusively licensed to cellular phone carriers in Baltimore, according to the complaint.

The Baltimore Police Department "has no license whatsoever," it adds.

A CS simulator, usually about the size of a briefcase, works by mimicking a legitimate cell tower and by receiving the signals from nearby cell phones.

In that sense, any cell phone used to make an emergency call would not be able to reach a 911 call center, according to the complaint, which also raises concerns about racial bias.

"CS simulators disproportionately interfere with communications in communities of color, where police surveillance tools are disproportionately deployed...," the complaint says. "The Baltimore Police Department has long exhibited well-documented embedded racial bias, making excessive CS simulator use all the more concerning."

Baltimore Police could not be reached immediately to comment.

FCC spokesman Neil Grace said the commission “looks forward to reviewing the complaint. The commission expects state and local law enforcement to work through the appropriate legal processes to use these devices.”

He didn’t define the appropriate legal process for law enforcement agencies, which is apparently distinct from the way consumers are treated under the law.

It is illegal for consumers to use Stingray devices and others in the category of IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catchers, according to FCC officials. Section 333 of the Communications Act prohibits any unauthorized person from using an IMSI catcher or other device to intercept radio communications, including cell phone calls, from someone else.

Laura Moy, visiting assistant professor of Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Public Representation, was the principal representative cited in the complaint. “The FCC should not site idly by while police departments in Baltimore and other cities systematically undermine Americans’ fundamental rights by intercepting cell phone traffic on licensed spectrum without a license,” she said in a statement.

Various civil rights and privacy groups have long expressed concerns about the use of Stingray-type technology, especially by law enforcement. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit in 2012 seeking documents that revealed the FBI was using CS simulators without a warrant and has used them since 1995.

The American Civil Liberties Union has posted an interactive U.S. map tracking the use of CS simulators as well as a list of the federal agencies known to have the technology. The list includes 66 agencies in 24 states.

The complaint to the FCC comes just days after the Justice Department found that the Baltimore Police Department routinely violated civil rights of the city’s black residents. Police had a “pattern or practice” of making unconstitutional stops and using excessive force against residents exercising First Amendment Rights, according to the Justice Department report released Aug. 10.

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