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Thursday, July 17, 2014 12:01 am

State police spying on smartphones

NSA-like eavesdropping has been used in Illinois since 2008

Long before Edward Snowden revealed the existence of a massive cell phone spying program by the federal National Security Agency, law enforcement agencies around the country were using devices capable of extracting data from cell phones, including the user’s precise location.

One of those agencies was the Illinois State Police, which acquired such equipment in 2008. The state police have stalled on releasing information to Illinois Times about how and when the devices are used, leaving questions about privacy unanswered. However, it appears the equipment has been replaced by even more advanced technology.

The machines are known as “cell site simulators,” and they were purchased by the state police from the Florida-based Harris Corporation, which provides communications equipment to governments and telecom companies. Known by the nickname “Stingray,” cell site simulators are only sold to governments and have been used in law enforcement, rescue operations and other applications, including the high-profile arrest of a fraudster who submitted thousands of fake tax returns. Various optional components that augment the Stingray go by names like Rayfish, Porpoise, Harpoon and Amberjack.  

A cell site simulator works by pretending to be a cell phone tower. When a phone connects to a simulator, the device copies any data going to or from the phone before passing the signal to a real cell tower. The machines, which are about the size of a briefcase, can also triangulate a cell phone’s location and communicate with phones even when they’re not making calls.

Responding to public records requests, both the Sangamon County Sheriff and the Springfield Police Department say they don’t have any such equipment and aren’t seeking to get it.

However, the Illinois State Police paid $254,260 for 18 pieces of equipment from Harris in 2008, according to public records obtained by U.K.-based freelance journalist Scott Ainslie. In a follow-up request, Illinois Times on June 25 asked the Illinois State Police for records regarding the purchase of cell site simulators, as well as any written policy describing how and when the machines can be used. The agency asked for an additional five days to collect the documents, most of which had already been supplied to Ainslie separately. The five-day extension ended on July 10, however, and as of publication time, the police still had not supplied the records, instead saying they would provide the documents “soon.”

The Illinois State Police are notoriously secretive about public documents; they regularly cite every possible exemption under the state’s Freedom of Information Act to withhold records. Without a publicly available written policy, it’s unclear whether the police seek warrants to use the machines, or whether they consider the machines legal to use in any investigation.

Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police, said she was limited in what she could reveal about the machines or their capabilities because of a nondisclosure agreement between the agency and Harris. However, she said the technology has advanced beyond cell site simulators, and any tracking of cell phones requires a court order.

The records released to Ainslie show former governor Rod Blagojevich exempted the state police from taking bids for the machines, in part because the state police wanted to keep the acquisition of the machines quiet.

“This exception is requested so that the Illinois State Police may purchase components directly from the vendor and decrease the possibility of sensitive information being disseminated inappropriately,” said a letter from William Quinlan, the Blagojevich administration’s top lawyer, granting the no-bid exemption.

The equipment was paid for by a federal Homeland Security grant through the State Police Federal Projects Fund, a federal trust fund under state control.

A high-profile federal criminal case in Florida has raised privacy concerns regarding the use of cell site simulators. Convicted scammer Daniel Rigmaiden challenged the use of cell site simulators by the FBI during his trial for submitting $5.3 million in fraudulent federal tax returns. The case was among the first to publicly expose the use of cell site simulators, even though they may have been in use by law enforcement as early as 1995.

Rigmaiden and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the machines violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and asked the judge to throw out evidence because the FBI did not obtain a warrant before using the devices. Documents filed by the ACLU allege that cell site simulators collect information from all phones on a given network, instead of targeting only a specific phone.

“Their use implicates the privacy interests of the suspect, as well as untold numbers of third parties as to whom there is no probable cause,” the ACLU said in one filing.

The judge in Rigmaiden’s case ruled in the FBI’s favor, and Rigmaiden was sentenced to 68 months in prison in a plea deal with prosecutors.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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