Editorial: Too much secrecy on cellphone tracking

Published: Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014 - 8:46 am

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has finally fessed up: It does have high-tech surveillance equipment to track cellphones, and has been using it for some time now.

Sheriff Scott Jones says the “Stingray” technology is deployed only in “special cases” to locate felony suspects or missing or kidnapped persons. However, he won’t say how often, or go into detail about how the department is handling data harvested from mobile phones of innocent people.

Nor will the sheriff say whether the department is obtaining warrants or other court orders. It should be. That would provide at least some independent oversight of what the department is doing.

As The Bee’s Kim Minugh explained in a story published Friday, the portable “Stingray” device sends out a signal that tricks cellphones into thinking it is a regular cell tower. Phones in the area connect to it, allowing authorities to identify, track and intercept real-time data from a phone based on its unique identifier.

While Stingray can trap data such as verbal conversations, text messages and numbers dialed, the Sheriff’s Department says that its version is only collecting locations. “The capability of this technology does NOT collect content such as voice, text, or data, and does not retain ANY data or other information from other than the target device,” Jones emphasizes in his statement.

Jones says a confidentiality agreement with the federal agency that provided the equipment had prevented him from disclosing anything at all until he received authorization to make a limited statement. He cannot divulge any more information, he says, “because this technology – like many of our investigative techniques and capabilities – could be rendered ineffective if criminals and adversaries used such details to diminish or defeat the department’s lawful responsibilities.”

Basically, the sheriff is telling the public, “Trust us. We’re not abusing this technology.” That isn’t good enough, not when our privacy is on the line.

Privacy advocates are justifiably concerned that the monitoring of Americans by local law enforcement, as well as by the National Security Agency, has been allowed to mushroom in secret.

The U.S. Supreme Court was absolutely right when it ruled in June that police must get warrants to search the cellphones of those they arrest. You’d think the rest of us deserve at least the same consideration, even if it is just where we are at any given moment.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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