Everyone struggling to get info about cell phone tracking program


Everyone from journalists to politicians to activists have been fighting for years to learn the details behind Minnesota's controversial Kingfish and Stingray cell phone tracking programs, but lately, the state's been leaving them empty-handed.

The Kingfish and Stingray devices are used across the country by at least 25 police departments, including Minnesota's, to collect cell phone data to pursue criminals. Because of how potentially invasive they could be, the devices are controversial, but what we actually know about them is pretty limited.

See also: Sen. Branden Petersen's cell phone tracking bill becomes law

The devices basically mask themselves as fake cell phone towers, allowing them to collect data from nearby cell phones. A June USA Today report based on public records detailed the process, and for privacy advocates, it's a little scary.

The program works by attaching a Stingray or Kingfish device to a mobile vehicle with an antenna. That setup allows the device to act like a cell phone tower, connecting to nearby cell phones and collecting information from them. Once a cell phone's been connected, police can get all sorts of information from the phone: its number, its location, and the phone numbers of who the phone's communicating with. That's all without cell phone users ever knowing a thing.

Sound scary? Rich Neumeister thinks so. Neumeister, a privacy advocate who fights for open government issues, is worried about how the state could use the device and who the state is working with, so he's repeatedly asked for data from the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and the state's Bureau of Crime Apprehension to get more details. He's received next to nothing.

The county has given him some documents, like the court order for its use, the number of times the devices have been used, and the contract between the county and the device manufacturer.

What Neumeister and others really want to see, though, are two items: the signed contract between the state and the Harris Corporation, which manufactures the devices, and the non-disclosure agreement between the two -- documents that he says should be available and contain answers to important questions about who the state's working with and what its intentions are.

"What does DPS/BCA wish to hide from the public?" Neumeister writes on his website. "Names of the people who signed the contract? The dates that the contract was signed? The amount of public dollars spent? Will it show if contract/agreement is released to public that DPS/BCA is violating state law and doing illegal behavior?"

Others, like Star Tribune watchdog editor James Eli Shiffer, are fighting the same battle, with largely the same result. When Shiffer asked, he got a similar answer, just a statement from spokesman Bruce Gordon telling him the data was classified, as it could "reveal information regarding investigative techniques that would compromise ongoing and future criminal investigations."

The closest thing to real information about the program is a letter that DPS commissioner Ramona Dohman sent to Sen. Scott Dibble in January after he and a group of lawmakers requested information on the program.

While not overly indulgent, the letter gives out a few tidbits of information. It says: The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension owns one Kingfish and one Stingray device; the department has spent more than $632,000 on the programs since 2005; and that police obtain a court order to use the devices most of the time, but not in certain cases.

That's been about it, though, and the limited information hasn't pleased everyone, including Sen. Branden Petersen, who said in a January interview with Government Technology that the commissioner "did acknowledge these techniques are being used to target individuals without a search warrant, which is a problem for myself and I know for others."

So why so secretive? We reached out to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to find out, but they simply pointed us to Dohman's letter. In the letter, Dohman writes that some parts of the law have to remain classified, for reasons such as preventing "criminal subjects from learning the exact capabilities of the equipment, which would render it significantly less effective."

What will be interesting to watch is how the program functions with the new cell phone tracking bill that's due to go into effect on August 1st. The law should limit how Kingfish and Stingray are used, but with so little information out about the programs, it's tough to say what the effect will be.

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.