Controversial surveillance equipment being used across the area

Published: Jun. 20, 2014 at 8:15 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 8, 2015 at 12:15 PM EDT
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The New Hanover County public defender's office has been asked to investigate if and how the...
The New Hanover County public defender's office has been asked to investigate if and how the Wilmington Police Department uses electronic surveillance equipment known as Stingray.
Public document released by the city of Wilmington. (Source: City of Wilmington)
Public document released by the city of Wilmington. (Source: City of Wilmington)

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - After a WECT investigation uncovered that the Wilmington Police Department is using a device called Stingray to use cell phones as tracking devices, the District Attorney said other area law enforcement agencies are also using the controversial equipment.

DA Ben David said that some of the 20 different agencies he advises in New Hanover and Pender Counties are also using the technology. He was not able to specifically say which agencies were using the equipment or how.

The uncertainty surrounding the capabilities of these kind of devices come from the secrecy required to purchase them. Harris Corporation, the manufacture, requires law enforcement agencies to sign non disclosure agreements. These agreements prohibit officers from discussing the technology to almost anyone outside of their department, including elected officials at the local level.

WECT is in the process of reaching out to the agencies in the two county area, so far only the Carolina Beach Police Department has answered our public records request. Chief Ken Hinkle says his agency does not own a Stingray and has not used another agencies, adding the units are very expensive.

The New Hanover County public defender's office has been asked to investigate if and how the Wilmington Police Department uses electronic surveillance equipment known as Stingray.

WECT obtained a copy of an email from the public defender, Jennifer Harjo, sent to dozens of attorneys asking about the high-tech equipment. Harjo would not disclose who asked her to look into this matter.

There's not much public data available as to what specifically these devices do, but according to the ACLU, who has been investigating the use of these devices for months, the stingray is a small shoe box size electronic device that acts as a fake cell tower tricking phones into reporting their locations and identifying information.

They do so by allowing the police to enlist cell phones as tracking devices, revealing people's movement with great precision.

An ACLU attorney noted one case in Florida where an officer explained in court that he stood in front of doors and windows in a large apartment complex to track phones inside. According to the article, the devices collect information about a large number of people with phones, whether they are part of that investigation or not.

The ACLU attorney states this type of surveillance might violate citizens rights under the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure.

According to records obtained by the ACLU, the Wilmington Police Department is one of only two confirmed departments in North Carolina that use this technology with Durham Police Department being the other.

"We live in a country of laws and checks and balances and if they have reason to believe that someone is committing a crime they should have to go to a judge and get a warrant before they track somebody," said Mike Meno, Communications Director at the ACLU of North Carolina.

Meno said the surveillance devices need state regulation if they're going to be used. This currently isn't policy.

"Information that before they needed the cell phone companies to obtain, now they can get it on their own and there's still no laws regulating how they use it, so they don't need a warrant, they don't need a court order, they don't need to talk to a judge," he added.

While the WPD has not confirmed the use of the equipment, public records paint a picture of purchases.

The Wilmington City Council voted unanimously in Nov. 2012 to spend $33,000 for maintenance of surveillance equipment.

Councilman Neil Anderson specifically asked WPD Deputy Chief Marshal Williamson for an overview of how the department uses devices like Stingray.

Williamson would only say that "it helps us in the location of persons that are wanted by this police department."

Councilman Earl Sheridan laughed and said, "You don't want to tell us too much because you don't want to alert the perps do you?"

Deputy Chief Williamson laughed and said "It's very good surveillance to aid us in protecting our citizens of Wilmington."

There were no further discussions or questions.

The background documents from that meeting show that the $33,000 contract was to a company called Harris Corporation, based out of Florida. The invoices for the maintenance agreement show that the city was in possession of the Stingray device amongst others.

According to another email obtained by WECT, the WPD might not even legally be allowed to answer council's questions about this technology.

An email sent from a representative of the company which manufactures the equipment spells out a standard non disclosure agreement that they ask anyone who purchases from them to sign. The emails states that only those who "need to know" can have access to knowledge of the equipment.

These products must not be discussed with or demonstrated to any other persons (e.g. administrative assistants, procurement staff, council members and other elected officials, grant representatives, press or media).

Additionally, the WPG products should not be discussed or demonstrated in any public setting where the general public may overhear or see, such as an open courtroom or a 7-Eleven parking lot.

The WPD has refused to say if they signed the agreement.

Other council documents show that the WPD has spent at least $490,000 on equipment associated with Stingray.

Council voted unanimously in 2011 to spend $360,000 to upgrade the software. At the time, Chief Ralph Evangelous said that they were upgrading to stay ahead of the curve.

Council voted unanimously in 2008 to spend $135,000 with Harris Corporation for the purchase of "sophisticated law enforcement equipment."

There were no purchase orders or invoices included in those documents.

When asked for comment, a WPD spokeswoman would only say, "We are not at liberty to make any comment. We have been instructed to direct any questions to the FBI."

And here is the FBI's response to our repeated emails about Stingray:

"Location information is a vital component of law enforcement investigations at the federal, state and local levels.  As a general matter, the FBI does not discuss specific techniques used by law enforcement to obtain location information, as they are considered Law Enforcement Sensitive, the public release of which could harm law enforcement efforts at all levels by compromising future use of the technique.  The FBI only collects and maintains information that has investigative value and relevance to a case, and such data is retained in accordance with controlling federal law and Attorney General policy. The FBI does not keep repositories of cell tower data for any purpose other than in connection with a specific investigation. The collection of cell tower records is only performed after required FBI approvals are received in the specific investigation, and only after the appropriate order is obtained from a court. If the records obtained are deemed relevant, the specific records are made part of the investigative case file. The FBI retains investigative case files in accordance with NARA-approved file retention schedules."

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