Baltimore police are under orders from the US government to withhold information about secretive cellphone surveillance technology from the public and even the courts, and are encouraged to seek dismissal of cases instead of divulging details about the program, according to a confidential document obtained by the AP. The agreement also requires the police department to seek FBI approval before sharing information about the technology with other law enforcement agencies. Baltimore police Det. Emmanuel Cabreja testified yesterday that the department has deployed a device called Hailstorm and similar technology about 4,300 times since 2007. That's believed to be higher than other known uses of similar surveillance equipment by state and local police.The unusual testimony in a criminal case marked a rare instance when details have been revealed about the surveillance devices, which the Obama administration has aggressively tried to keep secret.
The Hailstorm, made by Florida-based Harris Corp., can sweep up cellphone subscriber-identity data by tricking phones into thinking it's a cell tower. That data is then transmitted to the police, allowing them to locate a phone without the user making a call or sending a text message. "This is a very expensive and very invasive technology developed for military use, now used on the streets of America," says an ACLU staff attorney. "The public has a right to know how taxpayer dollars are being spent, and if our constitutional rights are being respected." The FBI declined to immediately answer questions about the case late yesterday. Police nationwide have largely been kept silent on how they use the devices, while judges have pushed back against state and local government agencies in criminal trials and freedom-of-information requests involving the surveillance devices. (The DEA and DoJ tracked billions of phone calls for nearly 20 years.)