Police tracking cell phones in Pennsylvania

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

It's easy to find out just about anything on your phone, but it's also easy for other people to use your phone to find out things about you.

Civil liberties groups are raising concerns about controversial new technology being used by police agencies across the country, including in Pennsylvania.

A stingray device mimics a cell phone tower. It can be used to force cell phones to connect to the device and store location information about the cell phone.

"This really is the new frontier when it comes to civil liberties and protecting privacy. There are a lot of new technologies, and government can use them. They can use them in ways that are effective, but they could also use them in ways that are abusive," said Andy Hoover, with the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Through a Right-to-Know request, FOX43 confirmed the Pennsylvania State Police spent $232,000 to purchase this technology from the Harris Corporation.

The use of stingray devices has been shrouded in secrecy. Police agencies have signed non-disclosure agreements with the FBI, in some cases refusing to discuss the technology in court.

 

"I think it creates a lot of problems legally because there's no transparency here," said FOX43 legal analyst Steven Breit. "If you have a lawfully targeted individual, your focus should be on that particular individual. What this device does, is it gives you everybody's information who are not part of a criminal episode, who are just innocent third parties."

The Harris Corporation declined to comment.

State Police also declined our request for an interview but sent this prepared statement about the agency's use of cell site simulators.  In it, the agency says it only uses the technology after getting a court order and does not record or intercept conversations and text messages.

The ACLU points out agencies in various states have been found to have used this technology without first getting a warrant.

“As technology continues to evolve and to explode, of course these questions of the Constitutional right of privacy get a lot more difficult,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida).

Nelson spoke on the Senate floor about issues surrounding stingray devices after the Washington Post profiled a case in his home state. Tadrae McKenzie was arrested for armed robbery. His attorneys suspected stingray technology was used in the investigation. A judge ordered prosecutors to show his attorneys the device. Instead of doing that, he got a plea deal of six months probation.

“We have major privacy questions,” said Sen. Nelson.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is calling on state legislators to create regulations for the use of this technology. A few other states, most recently Washington, have passed legislation that requires police to get a court order before using a stingray device.

"There are certainly many benefits. One that comes to mind is perhaps if there's an abduction or an Amber Alert. You could harvest data quickly, easily and coherently enough that it can be evaluated to make a quick arrest," said Steven Breit. "You can't keep this information secret forever. You might argue, well, it's national security. Well, it's really not national security. It's an individual's rights that are being protected by our Constitution."

But, as technology rapidly advances, the ACLU points out it's difficult for lawmakers to keep up with it.

Andy Hoover said, "And, that's one of the challenges, is how do you write a bill when the technologies are constantly evolving?"