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Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department sued over ‘Stingray’ surveillance technology

A lawsuit was filed Tuesday against the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department over its refusal to release documents surrounding its controversial use of surveillance technology that allows detectives to collect location data from the cellphones of investigative targets, with or without a court order.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Sacramento Superior Court, demands that the law enforcement agency reveal how the “Stingray technology” is being funded and used. What happens to the data that detectives collect, the group asks. Who keeps track of it? Where is it logged? What policies dictate how detectives use the cellphone tracking device?

It’s not the first time the civil rights group has asked these questions.

The group filed its initial California Public Records Act requests over the summer. The ACLU also sought similar documents from the Anaheim Police Department, which ultimately refused to comply and also is being sued.

According to a statement from the ACLU, the Sacramento Sheriff’s County Department responded to the ACLU’s initial request in June by admitting that documents such as those the group was seeking existed, but refusing to disclose them. After a second request, the Sheriff’s Department responded with five redacted documents and cited several laws, including the Homeland Security Act and the Arms Export Control Act, that the department said allowed it to withhold records.

Around that same time, the Sheriff’s Department publicly admitted for the first time that it was using the Stingray device.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said in a statement to The Bee in July that a confidentiality agreement with the federal government, which provided the technology, had prevented him from acknowledging use or ownership of the device. In July, Jones said, he got the go-ahead to do so.

The department did not say whether detectives were obtaining warrants or any other court orders before using the Stingray technology, but said only that the department “complies with all legal requirements to operate any equipment as a public safety organization.”

The department has been using the technology since the mid-2000s.

The ACLU’s stance on these devices is clear: In its lawsuit, the organization describes the IMSI catchers, commonly known by the brand name “Stingrays,” as “highly invasive surveillance devices.”

It works like this: The so-called Stingray devices can identify, track and intercept real-time data from a cellphone according to its unique identifier, or “international mobile subscriber identity.” The device does so by tricking a cellphone into believing it to be a cell tower that mobile devices use to transmit data.

IMSI catchers have the capability to trap “metadata” – such as a phone’s location, and the numbers of other phones with which it has been communicating. But some models also have the power to intercept “content data,” such as verbal communication or text messages.

In July, the Sacramento County sheriff said the device his department uses cannot or is not being used to trap content data such as text messages or phone calls.

“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 wrote to The Bee in July. “It is used infrequently in special cases, following department policies and procedures, to locate felony suspects and/or missing or kidnapped persons.”

But how the agency is using the technology – how often, in what circumstances, with what kind of permission – remains largely unknown.

That information, in part, is what the ACLU hoped to find out through its records request.

“This case concerns the public’s right to access basic information about how their local police use surveillance,” the lawsuit reads. “Law enforcement agencies increasingly use this extraordinarily invasive technology in routine cases, a practice that has grave civil-liberties consequences.

“Moreover, local agencies have been unwilling to disclose even basic information about their use of these devices – information that would allow the public to understand these consequences and the extent and ramifications of the government’s invasion of their privacy.”

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday that it had not been served with a lawsuit, but declined to comment further.

The county counsel, who would represent the Sheriff’s Department in such a case, also declined to comment on the case, as is its policy with pending litigation.

Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang at (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.

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