Disburse, there’s nothing to see here!
That seems to be the message from Florida law enforcement agencies when it comes to the controversial practice of using national security technology designed to spy on cell phone users.
After getting busted by reporters and the American Civil Liberties Union for using surveillance devices known as Stingrays, answers relating to their use have been hard to come by.
A recent ACLU blog post goes as far as to charge public officials in Sunrise, Fla., and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement of violating the state’s open government laws for failing to sufficiently respond to the civil liberties group’s public records requests.
“The City of Sunrise, Florida, tried to take a page from the CIA’s anti-transparency playbook last week when it responded to an ACLU public records request about its use of powerful cell phone location tracking gear by refusing to confirm or deny the existence of any relevant documents.”
“Refusing to even confirm whether records exist violates the letter and spirit of the Florida Public Records Act,” staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler wrote.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, agrees. “Florida’s public records law requires that agencies respond to a request to inspect or copy a public record promptly and in good faith,” she told Watchdog.org in an email.
Watchdog.org previously reported that the Tallahassee Police Department has been using at least one Stingray device, which acts like a mobile cell phone tower, during routine investigations since 2010. Court documents show Tallahassee police failed to obtain warrants when using Stingray technology some 200 times.
It’s unclear whether other police and sheriffs departments across the state are engaging in similar practices.
“The American system is one of checks and balances. Warrants serve as a check on the arbitrary authority of police,” Christopher Torres, a Tallahassee defense attorney, told Watchdog.org.
“The government is supposed to justify invading an individual’s right to privacy, it can’t legally act without independent judicial approval,” said Torres, who’s also a former prosecutor with the Florida Office of the Attorney General.
Stingrays have the capability to sweep communication data over large areas, potentially putting personal information of innocent, unsuspecting Floridians at risk.
But here’s the kicker: Sunrise police won’t confirm or deny the existence of Stingray-related documents, even though several pages are posted on the city’s website.
“A document on the city’s public website reveals that in March 2013 the police department investigated purchasing a $65,000 upgrade to its existing Stingray device,” according to the ACLU.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement apparently responded to records requests by releasing heavily redacted documents and concealing non-disclosure agreements with local law enforcement agencies who use state-owned Stingrays.
FDLE did, however, reveal purchasing $3.4 million worth of Stingray technology from the Harris Corp., a Melbourne-based defense contractor.
Contact William Patrick at [email protected]
Published with permission from Watchdog.org.
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