Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Cellular Tracking: A Secret History

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Cellular Tracking: A Secret History

Article excerpt


REGION: Local efforts to keep practice out of public eye date back at least five years

Efforts to keep certain cellphone surveillance methods a secret go back at least five years in Sarasota County.

At times, bits of information have slipped out, and the resulting alarm at such leaks among law enforcement officials provides insight into how StingRay and similar cellphone tracking devices have been used here.

A 2009 investigation by the North Port Police Department produced complaints from other agencies after details about cellphone tracking were included in a report to the State Attorney's Office. The case, involving a reported abduction, produced a chain of emails obtained by the Herald-Tribune.

The issue of cell tracking technology has become controversial across the country, including in Sarasota. Earlier this month, a judge threw out an American Civil Liberties Union of Florida lawsuit against the city of Sarasota that sought records of StingRay cellphone tracking.

StingRay devices are widely used by law enforcement to capture cellphone signals and track the movements of phones. The Sarasota Police Department has said it owns no tracking equipment but has a detective assigned to a U.S. Marshals Service task force in Tampa, which has access to the technology.

Questions about the legality of cellphone tracking, and about the secrecy surrounding it, have been raised across the country. The ACLU has complained that StingRay may be collecting information about innocent bystanders, and that police have been required to answer too few questions about how the technology is used.

Out of the public eye

Michael Barfield, vice president of the ACLU of Florida and a plaintiff in the Sarasota case, said the 2009 episode in North Port was revealing, in that it showed the lengths law enforcement agencies here have gone to keep the technology from the public eye.

In that case, a North Port investigation of a reported abduction included facts about cellphone tracking in a probable cause affidavit to the State Attorney's Office.

The affidavit was a public record, which worried some in the State Attorney's Office, as well as officers attached to the U. …

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