A secretive Florida company called the Harris Corporation has been supplying federal, state and local law enforcement agencies with cell phone tracking devices that allow authorities to collect information from citizens without the annoying requirement of having to obtain a warrant.
But when PINAC correspondents Jeff Gray and Thomas Covenant pointed the cameras towards the facilities from a public sidewalk this week, company security guards called the cops.
However, when the cops arrived, they pulled up behind Gray’s vehicle, taking notice of his license plate, and drove off, speeding right past a Harris Corporation security guard trying to flag them down.
So what gives?
Gray, who was arrested in Brevard County last year, which is where the Harris Corporation is located, believes the cops traced his license plate number to him and realized what they were about to get into, so decided to avoid it altogether, considering the last arrest ended up with an arrogant deputy being reprimanded by internal affairs.
Although the cops were from the Melbourne Police Department, it is likely they share information with the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office as many Florida law enforcement agencies do with each other.
When Gray made a public records request on calls for service during this particular time frame, he was told there were no calls for service from the Harris Corporation.
But maybe that’s just another example of the nondisclosure agreement the company has entered with local law enforcement agencies.
This uneasy relationship has come to light in the past but it doesn’t appear to have had an effect because the Harris Corporation is still supplying law enforcement agencies with devices under a non-disclosure agreement, according to recent court documents.
As revealed in a recent opinion of a Florida appeals court, Tallahassee police used an unnamed device — almost certainly a stingray — to track a stolen cell phone to a suspect’s apartment. (The case’s association with stingrays was first pointed out by CNET’s Declan McCullagh in January). They then knocked on the door, asked permission to enter and, when the suspect’s girlfriend refused, forced their way inside, conducted a search, and arrested the suspect in his home. Police opted not to get warrants authorizing either their use of the stingray or the apartment search. Incredibly, this was apparently because they had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the company that gave them the device. The police seem to have interpreted the agreement to bar them even from revealing their use of stingrays to judges, who we usually rely on to provide oversight of police investigations.
When the suspect’s lawyer tried to ask police how they tracked the phone to his client’s house, the government refused to answer. A judge eventually forced the government to explain its conduct to the lawyer, but only after closing the courtroom to the public and sealing the transcript of the proceedings so the public and the press could never read it. Only later, when the case was heard on appeal, did the most jaw-dropping fact leak out. As two judges noted during the oral argument, as of 2010 the Tallahassee Police Department had used stingrays a staggering 200 times without ever disclosing their use to a judge to get a warrant.
Potentially unconstitutional government surveillance on this scale should not remain hidden from the public just because a private corporation desires secrecy. And it certainly should not be concealed from judges. That’s why we have asked the Florida court that originally sealed the transcript to now make it available to the public. And that’s also why we have asked police departments throughout Florida to tell us whether they use stingrays, what rules they have in place to protect innocent third parties from unjustified invasions of privacy, and whether they obtain warrants from judges before deploying the devices.
While the FBI has stated that they do not use these devices to eavesdrop on conversations, Ars Technica compiled a list of devices produced by the Harris Corporation, including the Stingray, which is capable of doing this.
Also, not only is it difficult to take the FBI’s word on how they use this technology, the agency does not speak for the countless other law enforcement agencies that have entered non-disclosure agreements with the Harris Corporation, which has earned more than $40 million from law enforcement agencies since 2004, according to Ars Technica.
Speaking of Melbourne, Gray, Covenant and I were on a public access television show out of Melbourne in January with host Larry Lawton, which you can see in the two videos below.