Sunrise PD Using a Secret Device to Monitor Phone Calls, ACLU Says

If George Orwell and Stan Lee sat down to dream up a superdevice for trashing personal freedom and privacy, they'd probably come up with something like the Stingray.

The device, manufactured in Melbourne, Florida, allows police to target suspects based on their cell phone signals. If that isn't enough to make you fearfully clutch your copy of the U.S. Constitution, keep in mind that law enforcement agencies have been able to use the Stingray without a judge's permission.

Although the American Civil Liberties Union has suspected for some time that Florida law enforcement is using the device, agencies up until now have stayed silent, claiming that the tech is protected as a trade secret.

But recently, the ACLU caught at least one department red-handed with the device: Sunrise.

The device works by pinpointing a cell signal after tricking the phone into thinking the Stingray is a cell tower. In the process, thousands of other signals -- belonging to innocent people -- are also snagged. Obviously, this raises Snowden-sized questions about privacy and where the government can go.

The ACLU sent records requests to 36 state and local law enforcement organizations in Florida regarding the device. Nearly all just ignored the requests.

Sunrise, however, shot back a typical bureaucratic nonanswer. "The City cannot and will not acknowledge whether any records responsive to the Request exist and, if any responsive records do exist, cannot and will not publicly disclose those records," attorneys Daniel Abbott and Samuel Zeskind wrote on behalf of the city in documents released by the ACLU.

"Not only would the mere production of a single record responsive to these requests, even if entirely redacted, reveal the existence of confidential surveillance techniques, but it would also compromise both active and future criminal investigations."

But, as the ACLU's Nathan Freed Wessler point out in a blog post, a document on Sunrise's website shows the city was considering a $65,000 upgrade to the Stingray technology.

"An agency cannot acknowledge a fact in one context, but then refuse to confirm or deny the same information in response to a public records request," Wessler writes. "Sunrise's response might be laughable if it weren't such a bald violation of government transparency laws."

Send your story tips to the author, Kyle Swenson.