A Cook County judge on Monday denied the Chicago Police Department’s request to toss out a lawsuit seeking records showing how police have used secret cellular tracking systems.
Last year, the department responded to a Freedom of Information lawsuit by disclosing the city spent more than $340,000 between 2005 and 2010 on cell-site simulators, as well as software upgrades and training. The department also provided records showing an outside law firm billed the city more than $120,000 to battle the lawsuit. But the city balked at providing records describing how they’re used.
On Monday, Judge Kathleen Kennedy said she will review the requested records involving the surveillance devices made by Florida-based Harris Corp. under the brand names StingRay, KingFish and Superdog. Kennedy said she will then decide if any of the records should be withheld.
The records include documents that show when, where, how and why the devices were used, search warrants for their use, polices governing their use, records discussing their constitutionality, and records about how the data is stored.
Cops can use the technology, originally developed for the military, to locate cellphones. Law-enforcement agencies in at least 15 states have cell-site simulators, and many of them have been fighting lawsuits that seek to learn how they are used.
The Chicago Police Department argued that information about the trackers is protected under federal laws and that Harris Corp. requires the department to keep details about the devices under wraps.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office said revealing documents about the use of the devices in terrorist or drug cases could compromise investigations. And the FBI provided the city with a statement saying disclosure of the devices could help criminals create defensive technology.
Police agencies in other states have been forced to reveal in court that StingRays and similar devices have been used to locate suspects, fugitives and victims in criminal investigations.
In Tallahassee, Florida, prosecutors decided to offer a robber a plea bargain on a reduced charge to avoid complying with a judge’s order to show a StingRay to his attorneys.
Police had used the device to track the man to a house where he was arrested in 2013. In a response to an ACLU lawsuit, the Tallahassee police said they used the technology in about 250 investigations from 2007 to 2014.
Cell-site simulators act like electronic vacuum machines, collecting cell-phone data in a wide swath surrounding the devices. Many civil-rights activists object to such an indiscriminate collection of personal data, even if it’s meant to locate a particular individual.
Freddy Martinez, a Chicago-area resident who works in the software industry, brought a Freedom of Information lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department. He is represented by Matthew Topic, an attorney with the firm Loevy & Loevy, which is well known for successfully suing the city for alleged police misconduct.
Surveillance using devices like StingRays has a chilling effect on free speech and dissent, Topic has said. People are less likely to speak out against government corruption and wrongdoing when they fear the government is monitoring their location, he said.
One fear is that police have been using the devices to monitor protesters at events such as the NATO Summit. Demonstrators were suspicious that the batteries in their cellphones seemed to become quickly depleted during the protests — something caused by cell-tower simulators.
Last year, a Chicago Police source with knowledge of the department’s NATO operations told the Chicago Sun-Times that cell-phone trackers were not used to follow demonstrators.
Still, the Sun-Times has raised questions about whether the department needed to obtain legal authorization to spy on protesters.
The department has acknowledged spying on demonstrators including African-American and left-wing activists speaking out against police tactics in the wake of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Sun-Times has reported that Chicago police have opened six investigations into protest groups since 2009. Most involved the use of undercover officers to watch or infiltrate the groups.
City officials have said the investigations were legally authorized, followed department safeguards designed to protect First Amendment rights and were carried out under the watchful eyes of department lawyers.