Stop me if you've heard this one before: A city gets money from the Department of Homeland Security to buy anti-terrorism equipment (in this case, a device that indiscriminately sucks data out of all nearby cell phones) but is using it for routine, non-terrorist-related police work.
At least seven law enforcement agencies in California are using controversial technology that allows them to secretly collect data from cellphones and track people, News10 has learned.
Hundreds of pages of documents, from grant applications to purchase orders, show that the technology has been here for years and it's been used in dozens of arrests. In Oakland, a device called a StingRay allows police to track people and collect real-time data from every cell phone within a certain radius. The city's Targeted Enforcement Task Force II used a Stingray to make 19 arrests in 2009, according to an Oakland Police Criminal Investigation Division report.
StingRays are being paid for mostly by Homeland Security grant money distributed by the California Emergency Management Agency, under programs such as the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) or the State Homeland Security Program (SHSP). Grant applications from several agencies show local law enforcement are justifying the purchase of StingRay technology as an anti-terrorism tool, but it's being used to apprehend and prosecute suspects in routine crimes, from robberies to homicides.
None of the 19 arrests made using the StingRay in Oakland in 2009 were related to terrorism.
Sound familiar? DHS has been doling out "security" grants to cities across the US since shortly after 9/11—ours have purchased drones, surveillance cameras, and the wireless mesh network—typically without serious public discussion about what the money will buy or how it will be used.
Earlier this week, Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant bucked that trend with her standalone "no" vote on a bill that would authorize the city to accept $1.6 million from the Department of Homeland Security which will purchase, among other things, facial-recognition technology for the Seattle Police Department.
The vote was 7-1, so we're going to get it anyway.
In the past year, after repeated news stories and public hubbub about the SPD drones, Seattle city council has become one of the first in the nation to draft public policies, with guidance from the ACLU, for how new surveillance technology will be used.
But critics say mission creep (like using anti-terrorism cell-phone tracking devices for routine police work or monitoring who's at protests, which is what the Miami-Dade police wanted their StingRay for) is inevitable.
It'll be interesting to see, five years from now, how Seattle's facial-recognition technology is being used.