ALBUQUERQUE, NM –The ACLU of New Mexico and the City of Albuquerque reached a settlement in a public records lawsuit the ACLU filed in July 2017, challenging the Albuquerque Police Department’s (APD) refusal to disclose information on whether or not it possessed controversial cell phone surveillance devices, known as cell-site simulators. In January, the City finally handed over records to the ACLU that show APD has possessed technology manufactured by the Harris Corporation since at least 2014 and similar technology manufactured by DRT since 2012. While the public records lawsuit is now complete, many concerns remain about how the department actually employs the devices.
“The City’s new administration did the right thing in handing over the records,” said ACLU Executive Director Peter Simonson. “These devices are incredibly invasive and the public has a right to know that police have them. But frankly we still need more information about how they are employed and if police are using them to snoop into people’s private cell phone data.”
Cell-site simulators, also known by the brand name Stingray, trick phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information by mimicking cell phone towers. When they are used to track a suspect, they also scoop up information from bystanders in the area, who are not the target of any investigation. The full range of cell-site simulator capabilities is unknown, but evidence suggests that the devices are capable of accessing cell phone browser activity, SMS text messages, and the content of phone calls.
The ACLU of New Mexico met with representatives and officers from APD as well as City officials and attorneys recently to discuss privacy protection concerns. However, APD could provide very few details about how the department uses the technology and what mechanisms are in place to ensure privacy protections because of a non-disclosure agreement with the FBI, which prohibits them from revealing details about the technology.
“Unfortunately, we can’t say with any certainty that the public’s privacy is adequately protected because an elaborate non-disclosure agreement with the FBI is obstructing full transparency around the technology,” said Peter Simonson. “The department needs to get a suitable and comprehensive policy in place that at the very least requires police to seek a warrant before using cell phone surveillance devices of any kind.”
The City and APD are currently in the process of drafting a policy for the use of the technology and agreed to review and consider policy proposals from the ACLU of New Mexico. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which passed the House and the Senate but was vetoed by Governor Martinez last year, would have required police across the state to get a warrant before accessing private electronic data. The ACLU of New Mexico believes this bill should be a priority for the 2019 legislative session.