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Beleaguered cops now accused of disrupting cell service

The Baltimore police department has been under fire of late on a number of fronts. Freddie Gray died in custody and six officers were charged, although those cases fizzled completely. Then a Department of Justice report accused the agency of targeting blacks.

“There is reasonable cause to believe the BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution,” federal officials found after a look into the agency’s operations.

Now the department is facing even more allegations – that its “Stingray” operations disrupted legal and legitimate cell phone service, and had the potential to be blocking 911 emergency calls.

A complaint has been filed with the Federal Communications Commission by the Center for Media Justice, Color of Change and New America’s Open Technology Institute and is seeking enforcement on rules for the use of “cell site simulators” in Baltimore.

The simulators are commonly known as Stingrays.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains, “Stingrays operate by mimicking a cell tower and directing all cellphones in a given area to route communications through the Stingray instead of the nearby tower. They are especially pernicious surveillance tools because they collect information on every single phone in a given area – not just the suspect’s phone – this means they allow the police to conduct indiscriminate, dragnet searches. They are also able to locate people inside traditionally protected private spaces like homes, doctors’ offices, or places of worship. Stingrays can also be configured to capture the content of communications.”

“Police State USA: How Orwell’s Nightmare Is Becoming Our Reality” chronicles how America has arrived at the point of being a de facto police state, and what led to an out-of-control government that increasingly ignores the Constitution. Order today!

The complaint characterizes the technology as “powerful, invasive, and harmful surveillance devices” that “intentionally interfere with the normal exchange between cellphones and the cellular network by transmitting a signal over frequencies reserved for cellular use, impersonating a legitimate cellular tower, and forcing cellphones in the area to connect to them.”

The result is that law enforcement agents obtain access to “all cellphones within range.”

Baltimore’s policy agency has such technology, and “it makes exceptionally heavy use of the equipment,” the complaint alleges. “BPD may even make greater use of its CS simulator equipment than any other city, state, or local law enforcement agency in the country.”

Its uses include crime investigations, hunting down witnesses and “other unspecified purposes.”

But the procedures allegedly violate the federal Communications Act, EFF reported.

Since cell phones connect to the simulator, rather than the real network, messages and calls from innocent bystanders don’t get through, the report said.

“Depending on the nature of an emergency, it may be urgently necessary for a caller to reach, for example, a parent or child, doctor, psychiatrist, school, hospital, poison control center, or suicide prevention hotline.”

But EFF noted those, and even 911 calls, could be blocked.

The report said Baltimore police officials say they used Stingrays 4,300 times from 2007 to 2015.

While the city used the devices for “everything from trying to locate a man who had kidnapped two small children to trying to find another man who took his wife’s cellphone during an argument (and later returned it),” EFF explains the city’s law enforcement agency “has regularly withheld information about Stingrays from defense attorneys, judges, and the public.”

And the complaint alleges the use of the technology “disproportionately impacts African American communities.”

“The DOJ’s investigation found that BPD not only regularly makes unconstitutional stops and arrests and uses excessive force within African-American communities but also retaliates against people for constitutionally protected expression, and uses enforcement strategies that produce ‘severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans,'” EFF reported.

“Adding Stingrays to this mix means that these same communities are subject to more surveillance that chills speech and are less able to make 911 and other emergency calls than communities where the police aren’t regularly using Stingrays.”

But the federal Communications Act has the FCC regulating such communications, including a responsibility to be “protecting cellphone networks from disruption and ensuring that emergency calls can be completed under any circumstances.”

Such Stingray use allows law enforcement to use “without permission” frequency ranges that are “public property leased to private companies for the purpose of providing them next generation wireless communications.”

“It goes without saying that the FCC has a duty to act,” the report says.

The complaint notes, “News reports indicate BPD routinely and indiscriminately uses the devices to investigate run-of-the-mill street crimes involving non-violent offenders.”

It continues, “The commission should protect the public from harms caused by CS simulators by bringing an enforcement action against BPD for its unauthorized use of licensed spectrum and harmful interference with cellular communications, and by issuing an enforcement advisory advising law enforcement agencies around the country that they must abide by the laws that protect wireless spectrum and emergency services from harmful interference.

“The public is relying on the commission to carry out its statutory obligation to do so, to fulfill its public commitment to do so, and to put an end to widespread network interference caused by rampant unlicensed transmissions made by BPD and other departments around the country,” the complaint said.

“Police State USA: How Orwell’s Nightmare Is Becoming Our Reality” chronicles how America has arrived at the point of being a de facto police state, and what led to an out-of-control government that increasingly ignores the Constitution. Order today!