ANCHORAGE (KTUU) The Anchorage Police Department will not say if it using a controversial surveillance device that privacy advocates say might infringe on the public’s constitutional rights. But records obtained by KTUU show the department has purchased such a device.
In response to a public records request, the city Law Department released paperwork showing the city paid $118, 564 in December 2009 to Harris Corp. to purchase a KingFish, along with software, hardware and training for the cell site simulator. The purchase followed an appeal to the Anchorage Assembly on July 21, 2009, by then-Anchorage Police Chief Rob Huen who asked that members approve the purchase, calling the KingFish a “very useful tool.”
The money came from a Department of Homeland Security grant, Huen said.
(Photo of former Anchorage Police Chief Rob Huen by KTUU)
The KingFish lets users track and gather data from cell phones. According to privacy watchers and media accounts, police departments in many parts of the country are using the KingFish or similar devices -- sometimes called Stingrays – to catch criminal suspects and fugitives.
The device works by mimicking a cell phone tower and tricking nearby cell phones into responding. When the phone connects with the KingFish or a similar tracking device, the gadget reveals the phone’s serial number and location. Some models can also intercept the contents of phone calls and texts, collect information about what numbers the phone called and how long conversations lasted, and figure out which websites the phone browsed. Others models can deactivate phones or make phones ring.
In a purchasing memo, Huen said the KingFish can identify the location of a target cell phone to “within 25 feet of actual location anywhere in the United States.”
Civil liberties groups, criminal defense attorneys and others across the country say the devices are invading the public’s privacy with little oversight by courts.
“When this device is operated you’re not only intercepting the communications of the target who may or may not be involved in some sort of criminality but you’re also intercepting the communications of law-abiding Americans and invading their privacy and invading their rights. So it’s deeply concerning,” said James Christie, an Anchorage defense attorney.
(Photo of Anchorage defense attorney James Christie by KTUU)
Christie says judges in other parts of the country have approved search warrants without knowing the police were using the surveillance devices.
Neither Anchorage police nor the mayor’s office would say whether officers have been using a KingFish or any other cell site simulator.
“We are not able to disclose what tactical communications equipment the department is in possession of,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Castro in an email on Wednesday.
Police use legally approved tactics and equipment during criminal investigations, she wrote.
The department rigorously follows state and federal laws and has strictly limited ability to investigate mobile devices or protect the public when criminal uses of them pose an imminent risk to our citizens, she said.
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s spokesman said the mayor had no comment.
In his remarks before the Assembly in 2009, Huen said APD would always need to get a court order before accessing a suspect’s cell phone with the KingFish.
“Once we get that, we need to get another warrant to access where the phone is located. Is it located in a home or a car? So there are strict protections on that. There are many other things the device is capable of and one of the things that we are prohibited by federal law from doing is to eavesdrop on conversations. We cannot do that,” Huen said.
In a purchasing memo, Huen noted that some models of the KingFish have eavesdropping capability but that use is limited to the Central Intelligence Agency and some military command units.
In 2009, Huen said the FBI in Anchorage has a KingFish and that APD had tried to borrow it but that proved unworkable.
“The Alaska FBI has such a device. They have one of them with one operator. Unfortunately coordination and availability of that unit and operators have made shared use almost impossible,” Huen said.
Questions about usage of the device in Anchorage arose recently when the American Civil Liberties Association of Alaska filed a public records request to try to find out how city police have been using the KingFish. It’s part of a nationwide effort by the ACLU, which says at least 66 law enforcemens agencies around the country are using the KingFish or other cell site simulators.
“It sucks up a lot of innocent people’s data who have a constitutional right to privacy to be free from government searches,” said Joshua Decker, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska.
(Photo of ACLU of Alaska executive director Joshua Decker by KTUU)
Decker said his group is also trying to determine whether APD has gotten warrants before using the device.
Christie said there’s a well-documented history of police departments in other parts of the country using the device without obtaining warrants.
“In Florida in 2010 the local police were forced to reveal that they had used the Stingray tracking device on over 200 occasions without a warrant. That’s pretty amazing,” he said.
Christie said he doesn’t know whether that’s happening here in Anchorage.
“Part of the problem with this device is that it’s clouded in secrecy. The company who produces this device charges a great deal of money for it and anytime a law enforcement agency contracts to purchase one of these they have to sign a non-disclosure agreement that is extraordinarily broad and normally prohibits the police department or law enforcement agency from revealing the existence of the device, how it works, or how they’re using it. It’s insane,” he said.
In Baltimore last year, a city detective told a court that police officers in that city had used cell site simulators over 4,300 times since 2007, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Contact KTUU Senior Digital Reporter Paula Dobbyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, 907-762-9242, or @pauladobbyn
Watch KTUU Reporter Samantha Angaiak's report on the KingFish at the NewsHour at 6 p.m.