Pontiac— Oakland County commissioners asked no questions last March before unanimously approving a cellphone tracking device so powerful it was used by the military to fight terrorists.
Now, though, some privacy advocates question why one of the safest counties in Michigan needs the super-secretive Hailstorm device that is believed to be able to collect large amounts of cellphone data, including the locations of users, by masquerading as a cell tower.
“I don’t like not knowing what it’s capable of,” said county Commissioner Jim Runestad, R-White Lake Township, who has met in recent weeks with sheriff’s officials about his concerns.
The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office is one of about two dozen forces nationwide — and the only one in Michigan — with the $170,000 machine. So little is known about Hailstorm that even national experts will only speculate about its capabilities. The technology from Florida-based defense contractor Harris Corp. is believed to be an upgrade of Stingray, a suitcase-sized contraption that is installed in cars and used to trick nearby phones into connecting with it and providing data to police.
The technology can track fugitives and find missing children, but privacy advocates said they worry because similar machines can collect data from innocent smartphone users.
“It’s all very secretive and information about (Stingray and Hailstorm) is tightly controlled, which makes it (difficult) to have a broad discussion about these tools,” said Alan Butler, a lawyer for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
Harris sells the device to police agencies and requires them to sign nondisclosure statements. Oakland County, like other agencies, obtained Hailstorm using money from a U.S. Homeland Security grant.
Undersheriff Michael McCabe said, “Hailstorm helps us capture fugitives from the law, people wanted for murder and rape” and can be used only with a search warrant. He said the federal Homeland Security Act bars him from discussing Hailstorm, but he elaborated at length about what it doesn’t do.
“It’s not a tool to spy on people, unequivocally,” McCabe said. “It does not record cellphone conversations ... Hailstorm does not capture personal information on anyone or store unintended target data. It does not take photos of anyone. It doesn’t take videos or fly in the sky. It’s a tool used for criminal investigations and it’s legal and lawful.”
McCabe recently gave similar assurances to county commissioners. He was prompted in part by persistent, anonymous emails that have been sent to county officials and others about the system, but also questions from Runestad.
The commissioner said McCabe eased his concerns with written assurances that it’s illegal for local police in Michigan to listen in on phone conversations. Only federal policing agencies with warrants can do that, McCabe said.
The Detroit News sought basic information from the sheriff’s office about Hailstorm, including copies of its purchase contract, correspondence about its use and necessity and returned warrants in closed cases in which the device was used.
The county denied The News’ Freedom of Information Act request, saying the information is protected by anti-terror laws and includes “investigating records compiled for law enforcement purposes that would disclose law enforcement investigative techniques or procedures.”
Christopher Soghoian, a senior policy analyst and principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he began noticing police agencies nationwide purchase Hailstorm about the same time as Oakland County. The county received a $258,370 federal grant that paid for all but $105,000 of the device, training and about $56,000 to purchase a vehicle to contain it, records show.
Butler said the machines were developed for military and spy agencies and information about them is on “bureaucratic lockdown” because the manufacturer, Harris, claims specifications are “a trade secret and proprietary.”
Soghoian said the devices can identify all phones in a targeted radius and ascertain what numbers each called. What’s particularly worrisome is there is no telltale sign they’ve been used, Soghoian said: “It doesn’t leave a trace. No one would ever catch you.”
That means no one would know if police misused the device or activated it without a warrant, Soghoian said.
State Rep. Tom McMillin, a Rochester Hills Republican, said he plans to introduce legislation in the next month prohibiting police from using Hailstorm and Stingray-type devices without a warrant. The law would require police to report abuses and punish violators with a 90-day misdemeanor.
The ACLU reported last month that police in Tallahassee, Fla., used a cellphone tracking device, likely a Stingray, at least 200 times without seeking a warrant.
The revelation emerged in an ongoing case involving the search of the apartment of a suspect. Police used a tracking device to pinpoint his location through a stolen cellphone.
McCabe said he understands concerns, particularly following revelations about wholesale National Security Agency eavesdropping. Hailstorm, though, is just another law enforcement tool, he said.
“We don’t just freewheel it around here,” McCabe said. “We’re not spying on anyone. We’re not authorized to spy on anyone. We aren’t the CIA, NSA and FBI. We are a local law enforcement agency doing a damn good job of keeping the community safe.”