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Criminal Justice

Police Accept Gag Rules on New Surveillance Tech

Police departments across the country have signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with a vendor of cell-phone surveillance equipment, nominally promising not to tell anyone, even other government agencies, about their use of the new technology. Agreements of this kind pose a serious threat to the transparency, accountability and public discussion that are badly needed around new policing technologies.

The devices at issue — called stingrays — mimic cell phone towers, effectively forcing cellphones to connect to them. Stingrays can then collect a variety of information on nearby phones, including device id numbers, location, and even the content of calls and data traffic.

An Arizona journalist obtained a copy of the the agreement between a stingray vendor called Harris Corporation and the Tuscon Police Department. According to Wired’s Threat Level blog,

The non-disclosure agreement signed by the Tucson Police Department […] not only bars the police department from discussing their use of the surveillance tool with any government entity, it requires the law enforcement agency to notify Harris [i.e., the vendor] any time journalists or anyone else files a public records request to obtain information about their use of the tools and also states that the police department will “assist” Harris in deciding what information to release.

The Tucson Police Department cited the agreement as one reason it withheld information from a journalist’s public record request. The ACLU of Arizona has filed a complaint demanding the police department comply with the request, arguing that the police department is “plainly prohibited by law from withholding the requested public records.”

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