Sep 222014

Public records I received last week reveal that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are requiring police departments to engage in nondisclosure agreements with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in order to receive permission to use IMSI catchers, the mobile phone surveillance devices that allow operators to slurp up information about every mobile phone in the area, from serial numbers to voice and SMS content.

Last spring, I read about police in Florida using these devices and hiding it from the public, from prosecutors, and from judges. Details are scant, in part because the U.S Marshals confiscated public records about them before the Sarasota police were able to provide copies as requested under the state’s public records law.

Various ACLU affiliates around the nation were researching law enforcement agencies’ use of the devices, but it wasn’t happening in Washington, so I filed a series of similar requests with about 20 law enforcement agencies. All except one eventually responded with notification that they had no records responsive to my request.

Results came back positive for Tacoma, a city of 200,000 about 30 miles south of Seattle. They have had a device from Harris Corporation’s Stingray line since 2008. They, like Sarasota, have been dishonest about the situation, convincing Tacoma City Council to pay for an upgrade under the guise of bomb detection equipment, and receiving search warrants from judges for pen register or trap and trace devices, then using the IMSI catcher instead.

Kate Martin, a reporter at Tacoma News-Tribune, came across my request on MuckRock and ran a 2800-word piece on the topic last month. She followed up with an article including Tacoma Police Department claims that they don’t keep data they collect with the Stingray, and another with a report that some Tacoma City Council members were briefed on the device.

The latest news is a nondisclosure agreement concerning use of the their IMSI catcher. Three months since I requested it (a delay that likely constitutes a violation of the Washington Public Records Act), Tacoma Police finally handed over a copy last week. A letter, dated December 19, 2013, from Laura M. Laughlin of FBI to Tacoma Police Chief Donald Ramsdell, begins with the following:

We have been advised by Harris Corporation of the Tacoma Police Department’s request for acquisition of certain wireless collection equipment/technology manufactured by Harris Corporation. Consistent with the conditions on the equipment authorization granted to Harris Corporation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), state and local law enforcement agencies must coordinate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to complete this non-disclosure agreement prior to the acquisition and use of the equipment/technology authorized by the FCC authorization.

The next four pages of the letter were redacted in their entirety, citing “specific intelligence information the non-disclosure of which is essential for effective law enforcement.”

Today, reporter Shawn Musgrave kicks off MuckRock News’ crowdfunded “The Spy in Your Pocket” series (archived copy) with a detailed look (archived copy) at the apparently-unprecidented arrangement with the FCC.