Jacksonville citizen watchdog uncovers cell phone tracker


400-SJSO-RADIO-TOWERAs we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, a Jacksonville man is blowing the whistle on cell phone surveillance equipment the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has that he says is hijacking our civil liberties.

Purchase orders show the city of Jacksonville bought a Stingray-Kingfish tracking system for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office paying nearly $200,000 in 2007 from Florida-based Harris Corporation. The following year, almost the same amount was spent for another Stingray Kingfish tracking system that tracks cell phone frequencies. Most of it was paid for with your federal tax dollars through a Department of Justice grant.

“I am tired of our government using safety as am excuse to trample our rights,” the 44-year-old citizen activist, Michale A Hoffman, told local news reporters. “I am outraged over equipment the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has that can track your cell phone.”

The Stingray and Kingfish devices at issue allow law enforcement, or whoever has this device, to access any cell phone data within its range; whatever that range may be. That includes your emails, your personal photos, your browsing history, your contacts, anything you do on that device.

According to an analysis by technology website Ars Technica, the system can be used to intercept calls in real time but requires a software upgrade from the base model. When reporters asked Jim Burke, a spokesman for Harris Corporation, to comment, Burke said his company does not comment on technology it may or may not provide to law enforcement. He says that is considered “classified” information.

Sheriff John Rutherford wrote in 2007: This project utilizes cellular tracking technology that can pinpoint a cell phone’s physical location inside buildings or other areas inaccessible by a vehicle. Utilizing this cell phone surveillance equipment, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office will be able to identify the location of suspects or victims with greater accuracy and in a short amount of time than our existing technology allows.

Jacksonville Florida television stations, NBC affiliate WTLV, ABC affiliate WJXX, First Coast News, are reporting that they received a statement, released from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, declaring “The equipment we have is obsolete and no longer in use. It hasn’t been used for 5+ years. Beyond that, we don’t comment tactically, but know that we follow the law on every case we pursue utilizing technology.”

When asked if that means the sheriff is no longer using any type of cell phone tracking technology in Jacksonville, a spokesman for Sheriff John Rutherford said “our statement stands on its own.”

“The public needs to be aware that until we get enough people on the same page, seeing the truth, nothing is going to change,” Hoffman told reporters. “They are going to spin this and say it’s about safety, it’s good for us. We need to wake up. We are getting our liberties taken away every day.”

Hoffman believes that there is a way to achieve security and law enforcement goals without trampling our rights. You may have seen Hoffman protesting around Jacksonville. He also runs a website, the name of which includes an expletive, promoting his views.

Baylor Johnson, spokesperson for the ACLU of Florida, has this to say about police use of Stingrays:

“Initially this activity was the domain of the National Security Agency and other spying agencies,” Johnson told reporters. “The use of cell site simulators – or stingrays – has trickled down to the state and even local level. It now appears that Florida is ground zero for this invasive surveillance technology”

Whenever police use any kind of surveillance device they must first demonstrate sufficient probable cause to obtain a warrant. When police employ a technology as invasive as a cell site simulator, and then try to hide it from the public and the courts, as has happened elsewhere in Florida, Johnson says his organization steps in.

The ACLU of Florida will continue to investigate police use of stingray devices in Florida to ensure that, although surveillance technology seems to evolve more quickly than the law’s ability to adapt to protect our privacy, Floridians are not being spied on by the law enforcement agencies tasked with keeping us safe.

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