Records Request Targets Cellphone-Spying Technology

A computer security consultant is sparring with the city over records related to the San Jose Police Department’s use of a cellphone spying technology.

Mike Katz-Lacabe filed a Public Records Act request for documents related to what’s called Stingray technology, which scoops up untold amounts of data from our smartphones by mimicking a cellphone tower. Specifically, he asked for a copy of a non-disclosure agreement between the city, the FBI and Harris Corporation, the company that manufactures the controversial spying technology.

The city said no, that’s confidential. Because … terrorism. Or, to quote the city's response, because "the Homeland Security Act contains a provision which may preempt state access laws in instances where federal homeland security information is shared with state and local governments."

Katz-Lacabe is appealing that decision before today’s Rules and Open Government Committee.

In his response to the city, Katz-Lacabe argues that use of Stingray technology relates to counterterrorism as much as any other police investigative tool, from binoculars to helicopters and handguns.

“But the mere possibility of using a device, authority or technique in a terrorism investigation does not mean that a non-disclosure agreement about its use can be withheld from the public,” he writes. “Using a Stingray in the full range of criminal cases, the city of San Jose cannot invoke vague and inapplicable counterterrorism concerns to shield normal law enforcement activities from public view.”

Here’s a look at the back-and-forth correspondence between Katz-Lacabe and the city.

This records request is one of about 120 Katz-Lacabe has submitted to 90 Bay Area law enforcement agencies in the past four years.

This all started in 2010, he says. The San Leandro resident and former school district trustee saw a cop car outfitted with a license plate scanner and, curious about how many times it had recorded his vehicle, asked for records related to his license plate number.

The results were alarming. Turned out, San Leandro police had recorded his license plate number and GPS coordinates, with photos, 112 times, about once a week, even though he did nothing illegal. One photo shows him and his two daughters exiting his Toyota Prius in his own driveway.

“That’s when I got really involved,” he says. “I wanted to find out what they’re doing with all this data.”

Quietly, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, police agencies have been culling this type of information and feeding it into data fusion centers. In the Bay Area, license plate scans are submitted to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which signed a $340,000 contract with Silicon Valley firm Palantir to build a data library of license plate records from 14 counties. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, CIA venture capital fund In-Q-Tel poured $2 million into the company.

In the Bay Area, 32 agencies employ license plate scanners. In the South Bay and Peninsula, that includes law enforcement agencies in Los Gatos, Milpitas, Fremont, Hayward, Menlo Park, Redwood City, San Jose Evergreen Community College District, San Mateo and the regional Vehicle Theft Task Force.

Katz-Lacabe's records requests expanded in the past year from license plate readers to other forms of surveillance equipment. Ultimately, he plans to compile the results in a public database.

Records collected by a previous request from ABC 10 News show that San Jose secured a $500,000 federal grant to buy the Stingray system in 2012. In those grant applications, the city says it would be able to coordinate phone data with agencies in Sacramento Oakland, San Francisco and even Los Angeles and San Diego to speed up police work.

Katz-Lacabe says Stingrays work by acting like a commercial phone tower. When you’re in range, it slows your phone from 4G to 3G or 2G, then intercepts data ranging from just your phone number to text messages, photos, location and even spoken conversations.

“There’s so much secrecy around this product that it’s really hard to say how it’s being used,” he told San Jose Inside. “The purpose of them, initially, was for counterterrorism. But in practicality that’s not what they’re used for. They’re used for routine police work, for tracking down a stolen cellphone or other everyday criminal cases.”

The city has refused to comment on the Stingray technology.

“For me, you can’t have a democracy if your electorate is in the dark about what the government is doing,” Katz-Lacabe says.

More from the San Jose Rules and Open Government Committee agenda for Dec. 3, 2014:

  •  The police union says the city's police staffing projections were overly optimistic. In a letter to City Manager Ed Shikada, Police Officers Association President Jim Unland called the city's discussion about police staffing at a City Council meeting last month a waste of time. Resignation projections are insupportably low, he says. And unrealistic staffing projections undermine Chief Larry Esquivel's staffing model. "Using more realistic assumptions for resignations and academy size, we see a drop of 60 officers more per year from the '90 hires per year' projection and a drop of 105 officers more per year based on the '135 hires per year' projection," Unland writes. "This is not to quibble over the difference of a few officers. Using data consistent with actual resignation and hiring trends, paints a far bleaker picture than the one painted by Chief Esquivel."
  • San Jose expects a flood of inquiries from residents who may qualify for deportation relief under President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The city aims to team up with immigration aid groups to offer legal help for "otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants."

WHAT: Rules and Open Government Committee meets
WHEN: 2pm Wednesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408-535.1260

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. This is a sticky one in terms of technology/law.

    Law enforcement is allowed to make arrests based on evidence that’s out in the open. Not sure what the correct term for it is but… Let’s say you have a 3′ gate to your backyard. If a cop smells pot, and can see plants in the backyard, they can arrest you on the spot.

    In that same line of thought, our cell phones broadcast out everywhere. Cell phones used to have no compression, and could easily be tuned in with the use of a CB scanner. Telco’s added compression (fit more conversations in the same space) and that ended that era of phreaking, but just momentarily.

    There is laws on the books (DMCA comes to mind) that makes breaking encryption illegal. Thing is, modern cell phone voice stuff isn’t encrypted, it’s compressed, and that’s a huge distinction in the eyes of the law. This is what these devices do, and why they’re allowed. They tune in to whatever radio frequency a cell phone is using, and apply decompression to the incoming stream so it’s listenable.

    Until someone makes a law that decompressing industry standard compression is illegal, the police (or the average joe) can’t really get in trouble for listening in on airwaves. Don’t like it? Don’t use it. The only technology that doesn’t radiate your conversation to the world is POTS (plain old telephone service)

  2. Arron Koppelson HERE!

    Everything is digital now. Your house phone, your computer, your cell phone. Those signals all go through “Qualifiers” such as ISP’s, cable companies and last but not least cell phone providers. Now there is the ability for any Law Enforcement Agency and many civilian companies to acquire “Link Up ” software so they can sit at home or in the office and TAP into your providers systems and watch or listen to what your doing and see where you are going and who you are seeing 24/7 without a warrant. Police Departments have been paying a fee per month to Verizon, Sprint, AT&T etc. to have warrantless access to your accounts and they don’t have to tell you “Or Do They”? The Patriot Act requires that after six months if their are no charges brought against you all of the above pukes have to notify you of the snooping so you can retaliate. Guess what? There not doing it, so pansy a– what are you going to do about it huh!!!!!! Nothing, just line up like the Jews to take a shower.

    • Nate,

      You are obviously a mentally deranged and psychotic individual. You too, however, are entitled to your opinions. Having said that your comments regarding Jewish Holocaust victims is disgraceful. Get a clue, George.

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