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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Nixes FOIA Request|on Police Surveillance

TUCSON (CN) - An Arizona judge denied a reporter's request to find out how and why the Tucson Police Department uses surveillance equipment that collects data from cell phones.

Beau Hodai, a reporter with DBA Press and the Center for Media and Democracy, has been looking since late 2013 for information about the Tucson Police Department's use of Stingray cell phone tracking equipment.

Stingray is a portable device that acts like a cell phone tower, forcing nearby cell phones to connect to it and to provide data, including what phone numbers are called and the duration of the call.

Hodai claimed in a March lawsuit that the surveillance equipment, manufactured by Harris Corp., is capable of "mimicking cell phone towers; collecting cell phone data from thousands of persons in a single use; intercepting the content of communications; capturing cell phone meta data, text messages, and location data; providing real-time tracking of persons; conducting denial of service attacks on phone users; and, monitoring and mining information from mobile phones over large, targeted areas."

Hodai had filed three public records requests seeking Tucson police documents and information about the documents, but was unsatisfied with the city's response.

In a Dec. 11 order, Pima County Court Judge D. Douglas Metcalf said the city could withhold most of the requested documents after in camera review.

Among other things, Hodai had sought to find out if TPD's use of the technology violated the public's privacy and whether officers obtained warrants before using it.

"The records the city has provided to the court for its in camera review do not answer the questions plaintiff posed as to whether the city's use of the technology violates the public's civil liberties," Judge Metcalf wrote. "Rather, the records show how to use the equipment."

Police Lt. Kevin Hall told the court that the equipment has been used locally five times, each time without a warrant, according to the ruling. The city provided four of the five case files, but held back the fifth because it relates to an open investigation.

Metcalf agreed with the city that Hodai's other records request were either too broad or related to how the cell phone tracking equipment works.

"Disclosure of how this cell site simulator equipment works, or even bits of information about it, and how law enforcement uses this technology in criminal investigations, could jeopardize its use in future investigations," Metcalf wrote. "Persons engaged in criminal activity who seek to avoid detection may alter their behavior based on the disclosure of how this technology works."

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