Sacramento County's public defender takes sheriff, D.A. to court over StingRay secrets
19 motions filed over warrantless cellphone-tracking tech
Talk about getting stung.
Last week, the Sacramento County Public Defender's Office filed 19 motions intended to compel the sheriff's department to spill the beans about how it's used a surreptitious surveillance technology known as StingRay, which can track people without their knowledge through their cellphones.
Sheriff Scott Jones reluctantly acknowledged the existence of such technology last July, following an investigation by Sacramento’s KXTV Channel 10.
But he told The Sacramento Bee that he was largely prohibited from discussing the department’s use of the tracking technology, which the department has had since 2006, due to a confidentiality agreement with the federal government, which provided the technology.
Known by many other names and also referred to as cell-site simulators and IMSI-catchers (for “international mobile subscriber identity”), StingRay technology works by faking mobile devices into thinking it's a cellphone tower to ping their signals to. The tech can sometimes collect metadata like emails and text messages, but Jones says his StingRay technology wasn't capable of doing that.
It’s through that distinction that law enforcement agencies believe they can use the tech without first obtaining a warrant or some other judicial authority.
That argument has been a moving target, however, with the Department of Justice announcing just this month that law enforcement agencies do, in fact, need a warrant before surveilling people through their mobile devices. Jones released a statement one day after the DOJ announcement.
“At my direction, the Sheriff’s Department has been working on a policy for its use of cell site simulator technology over the past several months. That policy process was started before the Justice Department announced a new policy, and their policy revelation today has no bearing, influence, or legal precedent on our use or policy,” the statement reads. “Part of our new policy will require judicial authorization specific to the use of the technology before its use, absent exigent circumstances.”
Aside from occasional prepared statements like the one above, Jones has been largely mum on the topic, citing confidentiality restrictions.
In response to public records requests from numerous organizations and media outlets, for instance, the sheriff's department has consistently claimed that it possessed no responding documents, including ones that would detail how the technology is used, what information is collected, how long it’s stored and who has been targeted.
That prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the department in March. On September 10, the public defender's office submitted its own filings. Specifically, the office filed 19 discovery motions that ask the court to order the district attorney's office to disclose which defendants “have been secretly subjected to scrutiny by StingRay or similar devices.”
Additionally, the office filed what's called a verified petition under the California Public Record's Act, concerning six clients. According to Supervising Assistant Public Defender Steven M. Garrett, it seeks relief specifically against the sheriff's department, “so they will give us the documents and information we have requested regarding StingRay use.”
Asked why the office chose the cases it did in its filing, Garrett said they represented “a cross section” of the more than 200,000 criminal cases the office has taken on since 2006, when the sheriff's department obtained its StingRay technology.