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CPD Still Stonewalling Privacy Advocates On Releasing Information About Surveillance

By aaroncynic in News on Apr 10, 2015 6:25PM

Privacy advocates filed another lawsuit yesterday in the ongoing battle to get the Chicago Police Department to provide information on covert cell phone tracking systems it uses. Activist Freddy Martinez, who has filed similar suits twice before, filed one against the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office yesterday via Loevy and Loevy, a civil rights law firm. According to a press release from the firm, the suit charges the State’s Attorney has:

“Willfully and intentionally violated FOIA by refusing to produce records related to the presentation of evidence obtained through use of cell site simulators on the basis that it would be too ‘burdensome’ and is insufficiently important to justify the work involved to produce the records.”

The Chicago Police Department is one of many law enforcement agencies employing technologies such as Stingray, a brand-name and generic term for a device which mimics cell phone towers and collect data from phone calls, texts and more. According to a 6-month investigation into CPD surveillance technology by Joel Handly, a journalist with In These Times, the department bought their first Stingray in 2005 and has since added on upgrades such as AmberJack and KingFish, which pinpoint individual phones and analyze call patterns, respectively.

The cell phone technology is just one piece of an ever growing arsenal of surveillance technology Chicago Police have at their disposal. According to the ITT investigation, in addition to cell phone tracking technology, the department has spent millions on equipment which includes facial recognition software, license plate readers, one of the world’s largest networked systems of cameras and upgrades to web-based record keeping systems. In addition to the equipment purchases, the department has also spent $120,332 in legal fees to fight Martinez’s lawsuits to obtain more information about cell phone trackers.

While Chicago Police say the technologies are used in high level crime fighting operations involving things like drug trafficking or kidnapping, most often it’s using the equipment to monitor activists and protests. Additionally, police target communities of color most frequently. Among other things, the ITT investigation found:

  • 88% of squad cars equipped with license plate scanning technology are assigned to districts with majority non-white populations.
  • More than 90% of Police Observation Devices, or POD cameras, devices posted on street lamps and in other public areas marked by blue flashing lights, are located in communities of color, mostly on the south and west sides.
  • In 2010, 72% of all CPD arrests were of African Americans, even though blacks comprise only one-third of the city’s population.

Thanks to the relaxing of privacy laws post 9/11, the Chicago Police Department has been able to run multiple investigations of numerous movements involved in activities protected by the First Amendment. Chicago police are directed to report “information concerning strikes, labor-management incidents or union controversies or the possibility thereof,” to its fusion center, a high-tech facility funded by the Department of Homeland Security where local law enforcement shares information with the feds. Officers with cameras are regularly deployed to nearly every protest in Chicago— regardless of the size, scope or details of the demonstration— and are in regular communication about activities on the street with multiple layers of law enforcement.

Most recently, an “intelligence gathering” mission began on Nov. 7, 2014, as the “Black Lives Matter” movement was building. At one such demonstration in December, police allegedly used Stingray technology to keep tabs on protesters and communicated the transmissions to the fusion center. In a two-minute recording leaked by Anonymous and published by PrivacySos, police can be heard alluding to the ability to pick up an alleged organizer’s cell phone traffic. Another demonstrator reported a police truck with equipment mounted to its roof following the demonstration interfered with her ability to use her phone.

Getting detailed information about exactly how, when and why police are using the technology is at the core of why activists like Martinez are filing FOIA requests and various lawsuits. The department has only given partial answers to 11 requests from In These Times and Martinez’s first suit only garnered 3 pages of invoices that showed purchases of some of the technology. “A culture of secrecy leads to abuse,” said Martinez in a press release from Loevy and Loevy. “This lawsuit is a step toward understanding how evidence is gathered and whether the means by which it was obtained is being kept from the accused and the public.”

While CPD and the State’s Attorney’s Office have both defended denying the requests or only providing partial documents on the basis that it would be “too burdensome," Martinez's attorney said otherwise. Matt Topic, who filed the suit on behalf of Martinez said:

“The public can’t perform its duty of monitoring government or protect itself from Constitutional violations when law enforcement continues to hide virtually all details about this technology and when it’s being used.”