Sheriff’s Office Won’t Get Secret Cell Phone Spying Technology

Santa Clara County won’t get the secret cell phone spying technology Sheriff Laurie Smith has been pushing the last year. According to a memo released this week, the county said it couldn’t reach a contractual agreement with Harris Corp., the manufacturer of the controversial “stingray” device.

In February, the county Board of Supervisors signed off on the use of a $500,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security to pay for the technology.

In a Mercury News report on the decision to end negotiations, county Supervisor Joe Simitian said that he never once saw a demonstration of how the cell phone tracking technology would be used or documents on the device’s capabilities. Simitian, who voted against the acquisition of the technology, has repeatedly said he was not necessarily against the purchase of the device, but he felt it should happen after a thorough public vetting of how the cell phone trackers would be used.

Undersheriff John Hirokawa reportedly told the Merc that the Sheriff’s Office was disappointed that the contract fell through. He added, “Technology is advancing so rapidly that we'll have to see what comes next. Maybe there will be something out there that would do the job but not raise the suspicions of those concerned."

Those “suspicions” come from the fact that no one even knows how "stingray" technology works beyond law enforcement and the company that sells it. Government agencies are required to sign non-disclosure agreements to acquire the devices. This lack of sunshine has caused some criminal cases to be dropped, because of hesitancy to release information on the devices.

8 Comments

  1. Spying, really! When your family member is kidnapped or is in harms way you will wish they had this technology. Same goes for many other crimes. Thank you SVN, Mercky News and SJI.

    • None of the instances of stingray use that I’ve found involve kidnapping or innocent victims. Actually, it’s not clear that the conditions of the grant would even allow such use unless a drug cartel or terrorist group were involved.

      What supports your position?

    • Let’s be honest here, much of the fault of this lands in the sheriff’s lap. Her continued lack of transparency and integrity over the years, added to the fact she tried to shove through what she knew to be a controversial piece of equipment without even the knowledge of the BoS, never mind the public. This gave everyone a sense of unease. The sigh of releif amongst deputies has been palpable. Not because they don’t believe the equipment has value, they do; but they do not trust the Sheriff or her 4th floor minions not to order someone, eventually, to use it illegally. If she wasn’t notorious for hiding information, lying to the public, and didn’t have nearly all of law enforcement in the state stand against her for all the questionable actions and decisions she makes, perhaps the BoS and public would have been a little more willing to give her some leeway.

      We didn’t vote in a sheriff the public can trust, as they say, this is why we can’t have nice things.

      • Thank you. Four of the five BoS members voted for the acquisition – Simitian was the only No vote. He telegraphed his concerns well in advance, but Smith failed to address them.

        Also interesting was the absence of enthusiastic support by the DA’s office. Perhaps because stingray cases have not fared well in the past 12-18 months. Bad guys have had their cases dropped or most grievous charges withdrawn because of stingray evidentiary problems that would have surfaced at trial.

        Also troubling was the absence of transparency about data retention and dissemination. Are our cell phone records swept up via stingray kept forever and who gets copies?

        FWIW, I’m not opposed to stingray per se, but the opportunity for abuse, lack of transparency, and sham justification is very troubling.

        Now the the Sheriff’s department has avoided several million in life-time stingray costs, I trust that will be deducted from their next budget request.

  2. No mention as why the Sheriff’s Dept simply couldn’t contract with SJPD to use theirs or have it used on their behalf for a Sheriff’s investigation. The Sheriff’s bomb squad services are used by local PDs under this type of arrangement.

    Then there’s the problem of liability. “Stingray” technology can interferes with mobile communications and violates FCC regulations. If, for example, local fire, PD, EMS, can’t use their cell phones and GPS due to stingray, then who’s at fault?

    Security researchers have published working plans – SCC could have one build for less than $2,000 (materials cost) should they desire. Plenty of local talent is available.

    Mobile apps are now available to detect when stingray technology is in use. Faraday shield cases ($10 on Amazon/Ebay) thwart stingray interception and tracking (all signals are blocked).

    Readily available encryption apps prevent stingray eavesdropping. Tough to prosecute if no phone transcript is available.

    No cost-benefit analysis was presented, but by all accounts the initial $500K grant would have only covered a fraction of the life-time costs.

  3. Jack don’t forget to tell people that they changed their minds because of the Federal Appeals Court decision on Bulk phone and Internet collection. The issue is non criminal privacy and shortly they would have to drop the stingray into the garbage. It’s cool because they already got the MONEY.

  4. Another useless grant that taxpayers are forced to fund, made to appear as if it were “free money”, administered by an inefficient bureaucracy that grabs whatever it can as the money flows through the pipeline and empties into the drain.