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ACLU asks for data on 'Stingray' surveillance targeting immigrants

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a freedom of information request Friday for documents outlining how U.S. immigration authorities use cellphone surveillance equipment known as "Stingrays" to track down immigrants for deportation. 

The ACLU filed the request following a story published Thursday by The Detroit News, which revealed that Enforcement and Removal Operations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, requested a warrant to use a Stingray-style device track down a El Salvadorian man in eastern Michigan. 

In March, a team of FBI and ERO agents used the device to track down Rudy Carcamo-Carranza, 23, a restaurant worker who has been deported twice, and was allegedly involved in a hit and run accident in Shelby Township. According to the request for the warrant, Carcamo-Carranza fled the scene and hid inside his employment, but he was later found by Shelby Township Police, who released him before he could be picked up by ERO agents. 

Popularly known as Stingray, one of the brands of such devices, the instruments mimic a cellphone tower, tricking phones nearby to switch to the fake network and transmit their location. 

Some versions of the device can also capture voice and data transmissions, a potential violation of the civil rights of bystanders. 

Civil rights groups, including the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Electronic Privacy Information Center have pushed for information about the use of these devices by federal and local law enforcement. 

The devices, marketed as "Stingray" or "Stingray II" by the Florida-based Harris Corp., have been used by the FBI since at least 1995, according to EPIC. 

Other versions exist and are marketed under different names, including Hailstorm and Kingfish.

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"We’re troubled to see evidence of ICE using invasive surveillance equipment for immigration enforcement purposes, especially given this administration’s hyper-aggressive approach in this area," said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler. "It’s crucial that the government release this information so the public can understand how immigration authorities are using Stingrays and what limits they’re placing on this technology."

Although it has been public knowledge that ICE has purchased cell site simulator technology, the ACLU said "this is the first time the ACLU has seen evidence of use of the technology in a particular ICE investigation or operation." 

Previous research by the ACLU shows that at least 53 agencies in 21 different states are known to have used the technology, including a half-dozen federal law enforcement agencies, and the Department of Defense.

The Justice Department and DHS has spent $95 million over the last five years to purchase various types of cell-site simulators, according to a report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform published in December. 

The Justice Department has 310 devices in its inventory, and DHS has 124 devices. 

ICE along has 59 devices, while CBP maintains an inventory of at least 33 devices, according to the House oversight committee. 

ICE defended the use of devices like Stingrays. 

"ICE officers and special agents use a broad range of lawful investigative techniques in the apprehension of criminal suspects. Cell-site simulators are invaluable law enforcement tools that locate or identify mobile devices during active criminal investigations," said Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, an ICE spokeswoman.  

Additionally, DHS has provided more than $1.8 million in grant money to state and local law enforcement to purchase their own cell-site simulators. 

This includes Tucson Police Department, which acquired a Stingray device in 2010 and used the device in at least five cases without a warrant before shelving the equipment, due to training costs and privacy concerns. 

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However, the use of the device by TPD only came to light in 2013 when Mohammad "Beau" Hodai, an investigative reporter with D.B.A. Press, filed a public-records request for a range of documents relating to the surveillance gear. 

After several requests, TPD responded only with four documents: a purchase agreement between the city and the company, a contract for training and equipment, a non-disclosure agreement, and an email conversation between the department and a representative from Florida-based Harris Corp. 

Hodai and the ACLU sued for the remaining documents based on Arizona law, which holds that all government records are by default mandated to be available to the public with only a few narrow exemptions.

In January 2016, Arizona's court of appeals ruled that some documents should be released to Hodai. While the court agreed that many documents contained sensitive information, many of the documents could be redacted without compromising the government's ability to use Stingray devices. 

In September 2015, the Department of Justice published new guidelines on the use of Stingray devices, requiring federal law enforcement officials to get judicial warrants, and inform judges that the technology may sporadically affect nearby cellphone services, and assess the retention of data scooped up during investigations. 

Sally Yates, the Deputy Attorney General, said at the time that the technology was instrumental in aiding law enforcement agencies in a "broad array of investigations, including kidnappings, fugitive investigations and complicated narcotics cases." 

"This new policy ensures our protocols for this technology are consistent, well-managed and respectful of individuals’ privacy and civil liberties," Yates said. 

The ACLU's request asked for, among other things, records on usage policies, how often the devices have been used, and procedures on the retention of bystanders' data. 

The group also asked for policy directives and guidance issued to ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. 

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