Baltimore Police Accused of Illegally Using Cell Site Simulators

The Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute have filed complaints regarding the use of Stingray cellphone trackers by the Baltimore Police Department. The complaints filed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) accuse Baltimore Police of using Stingray devices that mimic cellphone towers to track cell activity and locations without a license, among other civil rights violations.

While the FCC has recently claimed that law enforcement agencies are not required to obtain licenses to use Stingray devices, this is a contradiction when compared to a 2014 statement issued by the FCC claiming that it is illegal for any group (including law enforcement agencies) to use devices that jam or interfere with cellphone signals.

Cell-site simulators (commonly referred to as Stingrays) work by imitating a cell phone tower. When cell phone activity requires the phone to send data to a cell phone tower, the Stingray can intercept this data before it hits an actual cell tower. While this seems fairly innocuous, this data being captured can be used to determine the location of the device. Stingrays have also been shown to disrupt cell service which can affect calls to emergency centers.

The formal complaint (which can be read in its entirety here) claims that Baltimore Police have been using Stingrays without obtaining the proper license, but also that by using this technology they have “willfully interfered” will cell networks, a violation of the Communications Act. The groups also claim Stingray technology has been used at a disproportionately high rate in minority communities around Baltimore.

Due to the fact that Stingrays intercept signals from nearby cell phones, any cell phone being used to make an emergency call would not be able to reach 911, which is a large safety concern for the general public.

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