Sheriff’s Office May Acquire Cellphone-Tracking Technology

The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office plans to obtain cellphone spying equipment to track suspected criminals and find missing people.

A $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would pay for the "stingray" technology, which would cost the county about $42,000 a year to operate. The Board of Supervisors will weigh the proposal when it meets Tuesday.

The San Jose Police Department and Alameda County Sheriff's Office already use the cellphone trackers. Civil rights groups have raised concerns that the technology could abrade privacy and lead to abuse.

Stingrays, also called "cell site simulators" or "IMSI catchers" mimic cellphone towers, sending signals to trick mobile phones into transmitting their locations. The sheriff's office said it would obtain search warrants before using the device, unless it's an emergency.

The "phone triangulation system," as it's called in a county memo, would help catch "armed and dangerous fugitives," "at-risk missing adults and children and aid in recovering victims of human trafficking."

It would track location only and not eavesdrop on conversations or texts, the memo states. Because the technology is mobile, the sheriff's office would share it with other agencies as needed.

Last fall, Supervisor Joe Simitian told the county to study the possibility of an ordinance that would require public input before acquiring new surveillance technology. That proposal has yet to come back for discussion.

Simitian said the county should take the time to collect public feedback before accepting the federal grant. On Friday, the sheriff's office met with community groups to present the plan and gather input.

"Right now, we've got more questions than answers," Simitian told San Jose Inside. "There are still some important issues to sort out about the use of this technology, the limits on that use and the privacy protections which may or may not be assured. I can't see moving ahead this quickly, given the limited opportunity for public review."

San Jose police had come under scrutiny earlier last year after it came out that they quietly bought a drone. The purchase was slipped into a City Council agenda as a nondescript item on the consent calendar. Now, the SJPD is making up for the lack of transparency by hosting a series of meetings to give the community a chance to hear about how the unmanned aerial device would be used.

SJPD also uses a stingray device, which was the subject of an ABC7 news report and a Public Records Act request last spring.

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that at least 48 agencies in 20 states use stingrays. Here's a map, which the ACLU says "dramatically under-represents" their actual use because many agencies "shroud their purchase of stingrays in secrecy."

According to the ACLU, at least 90 percent of California law enforcement agencies use surveillance technology, including facial recognition, cameras and license plate scanners. But those same agencies sought public input before acquiring those technologies only 14 percent of the time, per a a report release last fall by the ACLU.

More from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agenda for February 24, 2015:

  • The county will spend $1.8 million over 20 months to help 13,250 residents who qualify for federal immigration relief and protect them against fraudulent immigration services and misinformation. The money comes from Measure A, an eighth-cent tax increase voters approved in 2012, and would go to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to disperse to other groups.
  • An multi-agency agreement to feed info into a regional data fusion center will cost the county nearly $200,000 this year. The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center was founded in 2008 to collect data from Bay Area law enforcement agencies and analyze data for trends and patterns os suspicious activity. Or, in the spirit of the Homeland Security grant initiative that funds it, to scout out "potential terrorist operations."
  • County Executive Jeff Smith's office is asking to set aside $1.3 million from the affordable housing fund three affordable housing projects: Monterra Village, Redwoods Apartments and Wheeler Manor.

WHAT: Board of Supervisors meets
WHEN: 9am Tuesday
WHERE: County Government Center, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose
INFO: Clerk of the Board, 408.299.5001

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


  1. The Obama administration and DHS are doing us no favor by dangling this freebie in front of our politicians. The decision whether to acquire this or any other technology is a complex one with many considerations- cost being a very important one. Do we the people of the County want and need this technology so badly that we’d be willing to pay for it ourselves?
    The concerns over privacy are legitimate, but this side of the argument has already been undermined by our intrusive, overreaching federal government and is unlikely to get a fair hearing.

    • Criminals, especially those suspected of crimes where this technology is deployed, should have no right to privacy.

      This sort of stuff isn’t used for low level criminals. I’m certain you have nothing to worry about.

      • What worries me more than having my privacy intruded upon is our spinelessness as a local community, our ugly habit of snapping up anything that’s offered for “free”, and our passive willingness to be led by the nose by bureaucrats in Washington D.C.

  2. > Civil rights groups have raised concerns that the technology could abrade privacy and lead to abuse.

    What “civil rights groups” are we talking about?

    Have any of these “civil rights groups” ever gotten their panties in a bunch over the prospect that the IRS “could abrade privacy and lead to abuse”?

    Didn’t think so.

  3. More reckless and dishonest reporting of “drones” and militarization of law enforcement… Shame on you SJI.

  4. Very troubling.

    Article states, “On Friday, the Sheriff’s office met with community groups to present the plan and gather input”, but…
    * No mention of meeting on Sheriff’s website, nor findings
    * No outreach via United Neighborhoods of Santa Clara County, relayed via Supervisor staff, advance notice, etc.
    * Google search turned up an announcement after the meeting was held.

    Gathering “community input” certainly seems to be a false claim and sham.

    The DHS grant precludes any disclosure of details. No court order is required to spy, no limits on data retention, or collecting data from those not suspected of any wrong doing.

    When challenged, DAs have dropped charges rather than submit to disclosure of collection details in court.

    No data that I’ve seen that makes a sound case for Stingray technology employed in an abusive Big Brother manner.

    Just as bad guys have adopted to wire taps, only stupid ones expect privacy on unencrypted phones. Smart ones use other means as described in The Wire to avoid detection / conviction or use encrypted phones.

    Lastly, the technology is well understood. There’s even an Android app to see if your call is being intercepted. One can build a Stingray-like device for less than 1% of the initial $500K acquisition cost. Yup, for ~$1,500 you too can spy

    • You’re clearly paranoid. Based upon your links to articles and ridiculous assertions, you have no real idea of how this technology works, let alone how it is deployed. If you read this ridiculous article in its entirety you would have already realized where you’ve gone wrong.

      This is not something you’ve seen in the movies used to intercept and “monitor phone calls.” An “encrypted phone” would not be able to thwart this technology either. This technology utilizes something which cannot be turned off without completely turning the phone off and/or removing the battery.

      Without going into detail, these devices have nothing to do with big brother and everything to do with capturing fugitives and locating at risk missing persons.

  5. Thanks for the feedback. IMSI technology doesn’t necessarily intercept calls, but can using a man-in-the-middle technique. Bottom line: your phone calls and location can be intercepted. See

    And yes, I know the Sheriff’s department claims it won’t be used for eavesdropping and court orders will typically be sought ,but history shows that mission creep is the norm – not exception.

    Probably good to remember that the SCC BOS felt that compelled to reign in a previous Sheriff too after abusing public trust and accountability.

    Here’s the result of the ACLU’s limited investigation in FL:

    The technology alarms EFF too

    Not too much different than GPS trackers like this instance that seemed to lack any probable cause

    Despite working in this area, I don’t claim to be a subject matter expert. But have done lab testing of cell phone EMI sensitivity using a phone Faraday cage (available for about $10 on Amazon), and it neuters IMSI catchers.

    Main battery removal is impossible on many phones. Plus there’s some doubt that removal is completely effective as most phones have two batteries. In theory, the small one can be triggered by a broadcast signal even if the primary one has been removed.

    Redphone and comparable apps can encrypt calls (i.e.. defeat IMSI catcher eavesdropping), but the phone’s location can still be tracked. A Faraday cage of course prevents phone use.

    Android IMSI catcher detector app at another is called SnoopSnitch.

    Beyond the technical aspects, failure to observe Supervisor Simitian’s call for public input and absence of need, is the matter of cost. Given the pace of technology advancement, a 3 year useful life is typical. The $42K recurring annual cost seems too low to cover replacement cost (at least $200K) plus training, maintenance, etc.

    Then there’s the smell test. It’s claimed to be for locating “at-risk missing adults and children and aid in recovering victims of human trafficking”. Offhand, it doesn’t seem like we have more than 6-10 a year in SCC? And how many are likely to found using IMSI catchers?

    Do Alzheimer’s patients typically wander off with their cell phones, as do missing children, and trafficking victims? Amber Alerts and carrier tracking of suspects have proven more effective; IMSI catchers have very a limited range.

    SJPD has one. They refuse to disclose information about it, but seems likely (based on prosecutions) that it’s not used very often. SJPD’s shrunken force is probably a factor too. If a IMSI catcher is such a vital crime-fighting tool, then SCC could arrange to have SJPD conduct investigations on a trial basis. SJPD currently handles other types of investigations that extend beyond city limits.

    Duplicating costly and rarely used tactical elements doesn’t seem like a wise use of public money. A try-n-buy or shared resources program with SJPD seems more sensible if the technology is justifiable and subject to proper oversight.

  6. What civil rights folks are worried about is the day when technology like this becomes cheap and pervasive. I don’t think there is any way to stop that happening though. It’ll be like DMV and police records. Access to those sorts of things get misused all the time now. That’s what will happen with this technology. Cops will use it to check on their unfaithful wives and the like. It’s sure to happen.

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