Secretive spyware: APD using tech to snag cell phone information | KOB 4

Secretive spyware: APD using tech to snag cell phone information

Chris Ramirez
March 16, 2018 06:15 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Ask yourself: What do you have in your phone? What websites have you browsed, what kinds of messages and photos have you sent? And what have you said while talking?


Those questions deal with some extremely private information, and now there are serious questions about how the Albuquerque Police Department is accessing that information and what they're doing with it.

The controversial crime-fighting technology the department is using is officially called cell-site simulator technology or IMSI catchers, but police often refer to them as "stingrays."

Cell phones typically send information to a nearby cell tower, including calls, texts and the owner's location. The stingray instead tricks phones into thinking it is actually the tower, and it receives the information.

"This whole technology is shrouded in secrecy," said Peter Simonson, executive director for ACLU New Mexico. "We have a very powerful surveillance technology with very few apparent checks on its use."

In fact, nobody knew APD was using the spyware until the ACLU sued the city for records. In those documents, the ACLU found a contract to lease the stingray devices from Harrison Corporation, an American tech company.

Shipping records show APD was the recipient of those devices.

The spyware is so secretive that the FBI sent a letter to APD officials warning them to never talk about it publicly, out of fear that someone may find a way to thwart its capabilities.

Meanwhile, the ACLU says it isn't trying to tell the APD to stop using the devices altogether.

"We want APD to use them responsibly," Simonson said. "We think there should be adequate privacy protections, and we think the public deserves to know what are those protections that guarantee that personal privacy is not going to be violated, and that these devices will be used responsibly."

What's unclear is whether a judge signs off on warrants before the spyware is used. Outside of APD, no one knows how officers are trained to use the devices, where and how they store the collected data, and who is supervising the program.

"We have plenty of examples throughout history where law enforcement, at state and national levels, have misused the authorities that have been given to them – particularly when there hasn't been oversight," Simonson said.

The big question that still looms – are people who are not targets of criminal investigations being spied on?

According to Simonson, APD has invited the ACLU to help create guidelines for the program. When KOB asked the police department for an interview in regards to this story, they provided the following statement:

"APD will work together with the ACLU to properly address the organization's concerns, while at the same time utilizing the technology in strict compliance with all applicable guidelines governing the use of such technology, which include strict non-disclosure provisions required by the Department of Justice and the FBI."


Chris Ramirez

Copyright 2019 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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