Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Police alone shouldn’t decide when it’s OK to snoop into phone records

The Tacoma Police Department sent out a press release Wednesday that began: “The Tacoma Police Department has a cell site simulator.”

It was a bold statement given where the department was just two days earlier.

On Monday, Police Chief Don Ramsdell refused to talk to us about the existence of such a device, also known as a Stingray.

The department’s spokeswoman wouldn’t talk either, requiring us to submit questions in writing so the department could be sure it didn’t break its nondisclosure agreement with the federal government in talking about the Stingray.

A “cell site simulator” is a mobile device that fits inside a car and tricks phones into connecting with it. It can scoop up records of every cellphone call, text message and data transfer within a half-mile radius.

People whose records are scooped up don’t know it.

The Police Department says it doesn’t store data about innocent people. But it won’t explain the technology that sorts through data without storing it at least temporarily. The department is consulting with the feds to see what it can say.

Tacoma police say they use the Stingray to find suspects wanted for homicide, rape, robbery, kidnapping and narcotics trafficking, along with finding missing or endangered people.

It appears they also used it to try to find a stolen city laptop.

Records show they used the Stingray 179 times since 2009 — about three times a month, on average. They used it in 129 of their own cases and deployed it for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, other local agencies and federal law enforcement agencies.

It’s not surprising that police are taking advantage of technology to hunt down bad guys. Good for them. Good for us.

But this technology merits additional scrutiny for its apparent ability to invade the privacy of all the alleged bad guys’ neighbors, along with the alleged bad guy himself.

Even that might be OK in certain circumstances, but it appears the police alone get to decide when that is.

Tacoma police said they get a warrant each time they use the Stingray. Judges sign so-called “pen/trap/trace” authorizations, they said. Those traditionally allow police to get cellphone data for a specific suspect from the phone company.

The Superior Court presiding judge said, as far as he knew, police never said they were using a Stingray when they applied for a warrant. He was surprised to learn the department had one.

Would judges still approve its use if they knew? Maybe. But they might decide a given case is not important enough to risk invading all the neighbors’ privacy to get this bad guy.

The county prosecutor said he didn’t know police had used a Stingray. Neither did the director of the public defenders’ office.

When we asked to see a purchase order, the city blacked out most of the information, citing the state open records law exemption for “specific intelligence information and specific investigative records.”

Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said the exemption is supposed to protect information about a specific case, not this kind of administrative information.

He also knew of nothing in state law allowing an agency to hide information behind a nondisclosure agreement.

Members of the Tacoma City Council were surprised to learn of the Stingray. No wonder.

We found no City Council resolution approving the Police Department’s use of the device. It was provided through a federal grant in 2007.

But in 2013, the police needed money to upgrade the system, so they had to go to the council.

The chief told the city’s purchasing department: “This new equipment offers enhanced technological capabilities for the Tacoma Police Department Explosives Ordnance Detail (EOD) with IED (improvised explosive device) prevention, protection, response and recovery measures.”

That’s how the $63,000 expense was described in the City Council consent agenda. It got unanimous approval.

One of our written questions to the Police Department last week: Was the device was ever used to detect or prevent an IED?

The department’s answer: “We have not used it for those purposes.”

Clearly, some controversy surrounds any government attempt to peek into our private lives.

If comments by readers — and even City Council members — are any indication, some are just fine with police using this technology while others see it as too invasive.

But should a local police department be using a method it can’t talk about?

If Tacoma police think they need a Stingray, why not tell us they’re using it? Like they just did in their press release. It’s unlikely all the drug dealers in town have stopped using their cellphones since Wednesday.

At the very least, police shouldn’t have misled us. A device for finding and preventing IEDs? Really.

Now that the word’s out, it’s time to be forthright. Forthright with prosecutors and defense attorneys who are on the receiving end of evidence gathered this way. Forthright with citizens who might not want their police using this tactic.

And forthright with judges who get to help police decide whether and when it is necessary.