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Sacramento County sheriff defends surveillance technology use, criticizes ACLU

Two days after a lawsuit was filed against the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department over its controversial use of surveillance technology, the sheriff spoke out against what he called an unfair misrepresentation of his department and its use of that technology.

In a statement released Thursday, Sheriff Scott Jones said his office responded to an American Civil Liberties Union request for documents regarding the so-called “Stingray” technology, which traps cellphone data by tricking the mobile device into thinking it’s a cell tower. The technology allows detectives to collect location data from the cellphones of investigative targets, with or without a court order.

“Many documents were handed over,” Jones wrote. “And any documents that may have been withheld were so withheld under appropriate exemptions that exist under the (California Public Records) Act and elsewhere. This ACLU filing is NOT a lawsuit, but a petition for a Writ of Mandate, challenging our compliance with the Act, not about the use of the technology as their releases would have the public believe.”

On Tuesday, the ACLU announced its filing of a lawsuit demanding that the law enforcement agency reveal how the Stingray technology is being funded and used. The documents the group has sought could answer several questions, including what happens to the data that detectives collect, how it’s kept and what policies are in place dictating how detectives use the cellphone tracking devices.

The ACLU contended that the Sheriff’s Department responded to two separate California Public Records Act requests by first admitting the documents the group sought existed, but refusing to disclose them, and then offering up five redacted documents while citing several laws that the department said allowed it to withhold any further records. Among the laws cited were the Homeland Security Act and the Arms Export Control Act.

“Although I cannot comment with particularity during the pendency of the ACLU’s filing, I can say that their request made under the California Public Records Act was responded to – many documents were handed over,” Jones wrote.

Last summer, when the ACLU filed these requests, Jones for the first time admitted the Sheriff’s Department was using the Stingray devices, and had been doing so since the mid-2000s.

Jones 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.”

But on Thursday, the sheriff said the extent to which his office has used these controversial technologies has been grossly mischaracterized by the ACLU and local media organizations, among others.

“I have made public statements in the past that this technology comes from the federal government with a strict confidentiality agreement which precludes me from talking publicly about it or its capabilities, which has allowed the ACLU and Channel 10, along with others, to gratuitously overstate its use and capabilities for their own purposes, knowing that I cannot defend the allegations,” he wrote. “The ACLU is fortunate in that they can be singularly dimensional in their advocacy, without shouldering any of the responsibility or consequences for their actions.”

The ACLU did not return calls Thursday.

In its legal brief, the ACLU refers to the Stingray devices as “highly invasive surveillance devices.”

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

That’s what the ACLU had hoped to learn, in part, through its records request.

In his statement, Jones also went after the ACLU for several of its positions beyond the use of surveillance technology.

He wrote: “In my experience, they believe that few – if any – persons belong in jail, that all drugs should be legalized, and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement should not be able to identify and hold accountable ANY undocumented immigrant, despite their potentially deplorable and violent conduct. I unfortunately do not share in that luxury, and shoulder the additional burden of keeping over 1.4 million Sacramento County residents and their families safe. An oath I took, and a duty I perform every day balancing privacy concerns with our effectiveness in carrying out our public safety mission, and doing so within strict compliance of the Constitution and law.”

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

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