The Chicago Police Department is fighting to keep a lid on how, when and where officers have used covert cellphone tracking systems — with an outside law firm billing the city more than $120,000 to battle a lawsuit that seeks those secret details.
Since 2005, the department has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on cell-site simulators manufactured by the Harris Corp. in Melbourne, Florida, records show. The devices — with names like StingRay and KingFish — capture cellphone signals.
Cops can use the technology, originally developed for the military, to locate cellphones. Police agencies in other states have revealed in court that StingRays and similar devices have been used to locate suspects, fugitives and victims in criminal investigations.
But privacy activists across the country have begun to question whether law enforcement agencies have used the devices to track people involved in demonstrations in violation of their constitutional rights. They also have concerns the technology scoops up the phone data of innocent citizens and police targets alike.
The Chicago Police Department uses the devices in investigations of kidnappings, murders and other serious crimes, police sources say.
Activists wonder whether a StingRay or a similar device was used to track protesters during the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012. Demonstrators were suspicious that the batteries in their cellphones seemed to become quickly depleted during the protests — something caused by cell-tower simulators. Indeed, the Chicago Reader reported last week that the police have opened at least six investigations involving spying on citizens, including NATO protesters, since 2009.
But a police source with knowledge of the department’s NATO operations told the Chicago Sun-Times that cell-tower simulators were not used to track NATO demonstrators.
In June, Freddy Martinez, a Chicago-area resident who works in the software industry, sued the city of Chicago seeking records of purchases of cellular tracking equipment. His lawsuit also seeks records providing details about how they work and the cases in which the devices have been used. He filed the lawsuit after he made an unsuccessful public records request.
The city has hired the law firm Drinker, Biddle & Reath to respond to the lawsuit. The firm billed the city $120,332 for work on the case between June 23 and Dec. 31 last year, records show.
Martinez is represented by attorney Matthew Topic of Loevy & Loevy, a law firm that has built a reputation for successfully suing the city for alleged police misconduct.
“Surveillance like this has a chilling effect on free speech and dissent, especially when considered in light of the history of illegal political surveillance by the Chicago Police Department and misconduct that has led to far too many false convictions,” Topic said. “People are less willing to speak out against government corruption and wrongdoing when they fear that government is monitoring their location, their associations and their speech.
“Theoretically, there could be legitimate uses for this equipment, but there are serious constitutional concerns if warrants aren’t being obtained and if the equipment also takes cellphone information from the hundreds or thousands of other people in the vicinity of purportedly legitimate targets.”
So far, the city has provided Martinez with records disclosing that the Chicago Police Department paid Harris Corp. more than $340,000 between 2005 and 2010 for StingRay, KingFish and Superdog devices, as well as software upgrades and training.
The police department also obtained a quote from Harris last year to refurbish cellphone tracking systems, upgrade software and provide training for $252,000, but it’s unclear whether the city went ahead with that purchase.
The city is refusing to provide Martinez with details on how the technology is used, but on Feb. 10, 2015, it acknowledged that the police department had not used a cellphone tracking system since Sept. 3, 2014.
Information about how the trackers are used is protected under various federal laws, according to the city. Court orders for the police to use the systems for investigations have been placed under seal, the city said. And Harris Corp. required the police department to keep details about the devices under wraps, the city says.
FBI Agent Bradley Morrison, chief of the bureau’s technology-tracking unit at Quantico, Virginia, provided the city’s attorneys with a statement saying public disclosure of information about the devices could help crooks create defensive technology.
“This, in turn, could prevent the successful prosecution of a wide variety of criminal cases involving terrorism, kidnappings, murder and other conspiracies where cellular location is frequently used,” he said.
Topic responded that “we aren’t asking for the identity of specific future targets of StingRays and we aren’t asking for the software code that makes StingRays work.”
Last week, a judge in New York ruled in a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union that the Erie County, New York, Sheriff’s office must turn over documents about specific cases in which StingRays were used there. The judge rejected the sheriff’s argument that federal laws exempt the reports from disclosure. In particular, he said the sheriff there must provide records of how the devices were used to track a missing person and a suicidal person.
In his ruling, Judge Patrick NeMoyer pointed out that the FBI had asked the Erie County sheriff to dismiss criminal prosecutions if there was a danger of having to reveal details about the technology.
Police agencies across the country have been struggling to keep details about the devices secret. 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.
In the state of Washington, the legislature is considering a bill that would regulate police department’s use of the technology.
Chicago isn’t the only Illinois police agency to have the controversial devices, according to the records provided in Martinez’s lawsuit. Under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration, the State Police spent $254,000 on covert cellular tracking equipment, records show.