NBC 7 has uncovered evidence that local law enforcement is using secret cell phone surveillance technology capable of pinpointing your exact location.
Civil liberty advocates call this kind of tracking highly intrusive and completely unregulated.
A 2009 federal grant application obtained by NBC 7 shows the City of San Diego was interested in purchasing cell phone tracking equipment.
It’s called the Harris Corporation “Stingray II” cell phone tracking system and is described as a device “capable of tracking the signal of cellular telephones even if the person has disabled GPS capabilities.”
Court documents reveal in September 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice made the grant funding available.
The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties calls the use of this technology “highly intrusive and completely unregulated.”
However, they say the bigger issues are a lack of government transparency and potential for 4th amendment rights violations.
“We don't know if they're seeking warrants when they're using the devices and the ACLU has real questions whether this device could ever be used in a way that is constitutional,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the Policy Director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “[There’s] a fear of what the government will do when it's not transparent and not able to be held accountable.”
NBC 7 reached out to numerous local law enforcement agencies. The San Diego Police Department would not comment sending us this statement:
“It is a standard operating practice of the department to not disclose certain investigative tools and technology used to combat crime due to a variety of factors including compromising ongoing criminal investigations and revealing tactics used to gather intelligence information.”
The FBI provided a similar statement.
Special Agent Darrell Foxworth wrote, “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,” he added.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department told NBC 7 they do not have Stingray technology.
However, after filing a public records request, we found the San Jose Police Department sought feedback from our sheriff's department about the devices.
A sheriff’s spokesperson was not able to clear up the confusion.
“It's a big concern that this appears to be a widespread, a commonly used technology that there is no public information about,” Dooley-Sammuli told NBC 7.
This issue extends far beyond San Diego.
ACLU affiliates across the country continue to submit public information requests to law enforcement agencies to see who’s using Stingray devices and under what kind of restrictions, if any.