Local police departments have access to a mind-boggling array of spy-gear that would send Big Brother into convulsions of envy.

Late last year, we reported on a secret U.S. government catalogue of cellphone surveillance devices used by the military and intelligence agencies. At the time, this equipment was already beginning to filter down to state and local law enforcement agencies.  Now we have more evidence that state and local law enforcement agencies continue to procure a wide range of high-tech surveillance gear with sweeping capabilities.

Recently, The Intercept obtained a leaked confidential 120-page catalogue circulated to U.S. law enforcement agencies. The equipment offered by the British defense firm Cobham includes gear that can intercept and monitor cell phone calls and text messages, jam cellular communications in certain areas and track the locations of individual phones.

The Intercept obtained the catalogue as part of a collection of documents obtained from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Spokesperson Molly Best confirmed Cobham wares have been purchased but did not provide further information. The document provides a rare look at the wide range of electronic surveillance tactics used by police and militaries in the U.S. and abroad, offering equipment ranging from black boxes that can monitor an entire town’s cellular signals to microphones hidden in lighters and cameras hidden in trashcans. Markings date it to 2014.

The capabilities and intrusiveness of spy gear available to local police departments boggles the mind. For instance, one page in the catalogue describes “Cellular Surveillance.”

Solutions are typically used for:

  • Counter terrorism and organized crime operations, identifying and monitoring suspects, exploring target details and intercepting outgoing voice calls and SMS messages.
  •  Situational control, enabling identification and network denial of cellular devices through ‘intelligent’ jamming, including creating controlled areas of coverage.
  • Suspect geo-locating capabilities.

The company claims its gear can locate and track a cellphone user within 1 meter.

The catalogue also features page after page of tools for covert spying, including audio and video sensors hidden in everyday items ranging from clocks, birdhouses, outdoor trash bins and pocketknives.

State and local law enforcement agencies often obtain these expensive spy gadgets through federal grants and other funding sources that remain “off the books.” In other words, they can purchase high-tech surveillance equipment without any local government or public oversight. In fact, city councils, county governments and mayors may not even know police have obtained the equipment.

The entire surveillance industry operates under a veil of secrecy. Grants often come with non-disclosure agreements attached. We know for a fact the FBI required the Baltimore Police Department to sign such an agreement when it obtained stingray technology. This policy of nondisclosure even extends to the courtroom, with the feds actually instructing prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions on the stand during a trial, citing a federal nondisclosure agreement.

Defense attorney Joshua Insley asked Detective Cabreja about the agreement.

“Does this document instruct you to withhold evidence from the state’s attorney and Circuit Court, even upon court order to produce?” he asked.

“Yes,” Cabreja said.

As privacysos.org put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”

This veil of secrecy means police often use this spy gear with little or no oversight.

State and local government can utilize a two-step process to limit the use of this invasive surveillance technology.

First, law enforcement agencies should be required to get local government approval before purchasing any spy equipment. The process should include full public disclosure and an opportunity for the community to weigh in. This creates an environment of transparency and accountability, and will naturally limit the types of equipment police departments can acquire.

Second, the state should set strict limits on the use of surveillance equipment such as cell site simulators, automatic license plate readers, and other audio and video devices. Laws regulating use of surveillance equipment should include warrant requirement, and strict limits on data sharing.

While legitimate law enforcement uses arguably exists for some of this technology, police should not be able to use it with no oversight or limitations. This is the kind of pervasive surveillance Big Brother could only dream of.

For more information on legislation to limit surveillance at the state and local level, click HERE.

Mike Maharrey

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