In the past, it was agencies like the CIA, FBI and foreign intelligence services that had access to high tech electronic tracking devices.
Now, police agencies in San Diego County own or can borrow sophisticated surveillance tools like that too. The use has evolved over the years, to where now, it’s commonplace for both law enforcement and the private sector.
Civil Libertarians see this as a threat to our privacy, while advocates for law enforcement's use of these tools see their ability to gather data as a tremendous tool for crime fighting.
Darryl Thibault, the managing director of Pexis Corporation, has seen this change first hand throughout his career. Thibault first saw these technologies used as a CIA employee in clandestine services. Now, he is seeing them used in the private sector, working in security and as an investigator.
What happened, he told NBC 7 Investigates, is miniaturization, smaller batteries and wireless communications. With this, the pricing on all sorts of surveillance gear has dropped dramatically.
According to Thibault, anyone can buy them.
"You can go into the International Airport in Geneva, Switzerland, and see for sale just about everything the CIA uses,” he said.
Kellen Russoniello, a staff attorney for the ACLU, said the use of high tech gadgetry is part of "a movement towards the more, big brother, massive surveillance system where law enforcement can track everything you are doing.”
Some of these include facial recognition systems, license plate readers and one of the more controversial technologies at this time: international mobile subscriber identity catchers -- commonly known as stingrays, named after the brand name of one of the devices.
The stingray can mimic a cellphone tower, interacting with nearby cells. It can identify nearby devices and then intercept and capture calls, text messages and Internet activity. Russoniello describes the devices as "giant nets of data capturing a bunch of different information about people going about their daily activities."
Facial recognition technology exploded after September 11, 2001. It can identify someone in a photo or video based on the characteristics of a person’s face.
Plate readers use camera systems to scan license plates that come into view. They can process thousands of plates in an afternoon. Read more about local agencies' policies below.
Thibault said these devices are everywhere and available to both good guys and bad guys.
"I can guarantee you that Chapo Guzman, who just escaped from prison, can access these capabilities," he said. Thibault also said he is positive cartel and other criminals use this technology to track U.S. law enforcement.
The ACLU is very concerned about how American law enforcement is using the snooping and data gathering devices.
"They’re tracking the movements of all innocent citizens and keeping a huge data system of all the movements," Russoniello said.
According to the ACLU, the police began using these methods with very little knowledge or feedback from citizens or local government. Something has to change, Russoniello said.
According to him, law enforcement cannot be employing dragnet like electronic tools without the knowledge and approval of residents in a community.
One technology, facial recognition, does have guidelines provided by the Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS). ARJIS was created to share information among law enforcement throughout San Diego and Imperial counties here in California.
NBC 7 Investigates wanted to see how the other devices were being used, and what protections were in place for citizens.
Through a California Public Records Act request to the San Diego Police Department, focused on stingrays, we asked for details about how SDPD is using the technology.
In its response, a city purchase order for $33,000 worth of stingrays bought through the Department of Homeland Security was provided.
In its response, SDPD told NBC 7 Investigates, "the information you seek would reveal security or intelligence information, and is exempt from disclosure…"
In another public records act request, we asked about closed cases where SDPD has used the technology in its investigation. The department, once again, denied our request.
“The exemption…does not end with the completion of the investigation," according to the CPRA request response.
NBC 7 Investigates found other efforts across the state and here in San Diego relating to how police are using stingray and other technologies.
The Associated Press, the San Diego Union Tribune, the Guardian (newspaper), Muckrack news, the First Amendment Coalition and private citizens have also asked SDPD about its use of stingrays. All received the same response, including the same $33,000 invoice.
The ACLU in San Francisco requested the same information from the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. It too received copies of invoices but nothing more.
As a result, the ACLU has sued the department. In the lawsuit, the ACLU says law enforcement agencies are using the stingray technology increasingly "in routine cases, a practice that has grave civil-liberties consequences."
On its website the ACLU tracks state and local law enforcement agencies who purchased cell site simulators like stingrays. The national ACLU told NBC 7 Investigates the information is from press reports, government websites and public records requests by the ACLU.
Click here to see the data.
NBC 7 Investigates has learned law enforcement agencies are able to share and query license plate reader data collected by other law enforcement agencies in the ARJIS Regional License Plate Reader System.
According to the San Diego Association of Governments or SANDAG, the system is “basically the ‘cloud’ for law enforcement data sharing in the San Diego region.”
The data in the ARJIS license plate reader system is maintained for a year.
In addition, it’s maintained by the individual agencies who contributed it to ARJIS. SANDAG does not control the retention policies for the individual agencies.
Click here to read the ARJIS Acceptable Use Policy for Regional LPR System.
Former San Diego U.S. Attorney Peter Nunez said he believes these "tools are fantastic" in terms of effectiveness in fighting crime. He argues no protections are needed.
“Unless there is an abuse,” he said, “we shouldn’t mess around with it. We should not limit it. If there is an abuse, we should deal with it as we do in any other context."
Russoniello disagreed, saying, "we need to be more open about what technology law enforcement has and how they are using it. The public needs to be involved."
After NBC 7 Investigates' report on surveillance technology initially aired, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) responded to our CPRA request for information on how long it retains data from license plate readers and other surveillance systems.
In the response, SANDAG explained how local agencies use the database, called ARJIS.
"ARJIS is basically the “cloud” for law enforcement data sharing in the San Diego region. ARJIS provides a data repository for information the local law enforcement agencies are willing to share, and applications to facilitate access to that data by law enforcement agencies.
"SANDAG has retention policies for how long ARJIS retains the shared data, but that same data is also retained by the individual law enforcement agencies who contributed the data to ARJIS, and it is that retention by the law enforcement agencies themselves that ARJIS/SANDAG has no control over.
"The ARJIS LPR AUP establishes a retention period of one year for license plate reader data in ARJIS, but some of the individual law enforcements agencies who contribute LPR data also retain it themselves, and their retention periods may vary, again, because SANDAG does not control data retention by those individual agencies."