Washington— The Obama administration has been quietly advising local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology they are using to sweep up basic cellphone data from entire neighborhoods, the Associated Press has learned.
Local police agencies such as the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office have been denying access to records about this surveillance equipment.
Citing security reasons, the U.S. has intervened in routine state public records cases and criminal trials regarding use of the technology. This has resulted in police departments withholding materials or heavily censoring documents in rare instances when they disclose anything about the purchase and use of such powerful surveillance equipment.
Local police agencies have been denying access under state public records laws. Agencies in San Diego, Chicago and Oakland County, for instance, declined to tell the AP what devices they purchased, the cost and with whom they shared information.
Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe has declined to discuss the county’s Hailstorm device in detail, saying that doing so would violate U.S. anti-terrorism laws.
He blanched, though, at the suggestion the White House was behind the stance.
“The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office does not take orders and direction from the Barack Obama administration,” said McCabe. “We follow the Constitution and any applicable federal and state statutes.”
He declined to comment further.
Oakland County Commissioner Jim Runestad, R-White Lake Township, has met with McCabe and Sheriff Michael Bouchard regarding concerns about the device. He said he’s received assurances it’s used only with a warrant by two trained officers and is otherwise kept under “lock and key.”
Even so, he said he’s concerned about Hailstorm’s capabilities and the silence surrounding the device originally designed for use by the military to fight terrorists.
“There’s a big difference between the battlefield and the United States of America,” Runestad said. “Certainly with dealing with foreign or suspected terrorists, there is a one set of standards and rules. But when you are dealing with American citizens, the protections of the U.S. Constitution must apply.”
Oakland County’s device, like most others in local police agencies, was funded by federal Homeland Security grants.
“It’s not surprising and yet it’s shocking the federal government and local law enforcement would conspire to keep information from the public,” said Sofia Rahman, a legal fellow with the Michigan ACLU. “It’s incredibly troubling.”
The ACLU is working with State Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, to gather information about Hailstorm and draft legislation to regulate it. Oakland County has stymied them, refusing to attend a May hearing in Lansing and claiming the FBI protects the agency from answering questions about the device, Rahman said.
“A huge part of the problem is we don’t know (Hailstorm’s) capabilities,” she said.
McMillin, by email Thursday, said: “What is even more disturbing is that local and federal law enforcement tell me they won’t address my (legislative oversight) committee even in a closed door session. Law enforcement, both local and federal want zero oversight on how they are surveilling citizens.”
“We’re at a real crossroads .... Law enforcement must go out of their way to assure the public that they are doing nothing wrong. Stonewalling must not be tolerated,” stated McMillin, who added he plans to hold a forum in his district on the subject later this month.
One well-known type of this surveillance equipment is known as a Stingray, an innovative way for law enforcement to track cellphones used by suspects and gather evidence. The equipment tricks cellphones into identifying their owners’ account information and transmitting data to police as if it were a phone company’s tower. That allows police to obtain cellphone information without having to ask for help from service providers, such as Verizon or AT&T, and can locate a phone without the user even making a call or sending a text message.
But without more details about how the technology works and under what circumstances it’s used, it’s unclear whether the technology might violate a person’s constitutional rights or whether it’s a good investment of taxpayer dollars.
Interviews, court records and public-records requests show the Obama administration is asking agencies to withhold common information about the equipment, such as how the technology is used and how to turn it on.
“These extreme secrecy efforts are in relation to very controversial, local government surveillance practices using highly invasive technology,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Detroit News Staff Writers Joel Kurth and Lauren Abdel-Razzaq contributed.