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Did the Feds Confiscate Records to Prevent ACLU Review of Surveillance Program?

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When the feds move in to confiscate files, it's sure to raise more than a few eyebrows. But when the American Civil Liberties Union made a routine records request about a surveillance tool known as "StingRay," it triggered a totally unexpected response.

The United States Marshals Service seized the documents before police could release them.

The records request was made in Sarasota, Florida, in May for information detailing police usage of the controversial surveillance system, according to Wired. But just before the ACLU could meet with the police detectives last week, the marshals blocked the release of the records, claiming they were federal property.

This graphic illustrates how a StingRay works. Signals from cellphones within the device’s radius are bounced to law enforcement. The information relayed may include names, phone numbers, locations, call records and even text messages. Signals from cellphones within the StingRay device’s radius are bounced to law enforcement. The information relayed may include names, phone numbers, locations, call records and even text messages (Image source: KQED)

ACLU staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler called the move “truly extraordinary and beyond the worst transparency violations” the group has seen regarding documents detailing police use of the technology, Wired reported.

“This is consistent with what we’ve seen around the country with federal agencies trying to meddle with public requests for stingray information,” Wessler said, noting that federal authorities have in other cases invoked the Homeland Security Act to prevent the release of such records. “The feds are working very hard to block any release of this information to the public.”

The StingRay devices are widely used by law enforcement to capture cellphone signals and track the movements of phones; they act as phony cellphone towers, forcing phones in the area to register their location and identifying information with the StingRay instead of with real cell towers in the area, according to the Herald Tribune.

But critics say the devices often capture innocent bystanders, and legal questions about the technology and the data storage are now in question.

Michael Barfield, vice president of the ACLU of Florida, made the public records request last month as part of a statewide survey of cellphone surveillance. The city’s response, according to the ACLU, “raised red flags," and now Barfield and the ACLU are suing the city.

The Herald Tribune reported:

"Attorneys for the city said the records belonged to the U.S. Marshals because the cell phone investigations were done by an SPD detective who is also assigned to a U.S. Marshals task force. Sarasota police officials have said they own no cell phone tracking equipment.

But Barfield said the ACLU has credible information that the police are using the cell phone surveillance equipment on loan from the U.S. Marshals for their own investigations. Barfield and the ACLU of Florida are suing the city and SPD Detective Michael Jackson to find the state court documents Jackson obtained for those investigations."

Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney for the Florida ACLU criticized the seizure of the records by the U.S. Marshals, in a statement to the press.

“That police use stingray devices is nothing new, but that the police would go to these lengths to evade a public discussion on how and when they use them is alarming,” Stevenson said. “We have open records laws for a reason, but they mean nothing if the government can violate their clear commands at its whim.”

(H/T: Wired)

Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter.

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