Police in Anaheim, California — the home of Disneyland and more than 300,000 residents — have spent years conducting widespread secret surveillance of cell phones with a plane-mounted device, newly published documents show.
The documents published Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California show that Anaheim's cell phone surveillance program dates back to at least 2009. At that time, the city purchased a "Dirtbox," which according to the ACLU allows police to "collect information about thousands of phones at once."
A Dirtbox is used by authorities to force nearby phones to establish a connection with them, allowing officials to quietly eavesdrop on conversations, gather emails, and text messages. The device is mounted on an aircraft, allowing investigators to surveil far more phones than they could with a ground-based device.
In 2011, the Anaheim Police Department bought another surveillance device known as a "Stingray," the documents show. The land-based device mimics a cellphone tower, tricking phones into transmitting data to authorities.
The department in 2013 approved an upgrade to its Stingray system that was believed to enable the monitoring of modern LTE networks. It then bought what the ACLU described as a "hand-held cell phone surveillance device" that allows police to locate phones in hard to reach places such as building interiors.
Both Anaheim Police spokesman Daron Wyatt and city attorney Michael Houston told BuzzFeed News they could not comment on the use of electronic surveillance due to pending litigation with the ACLU.
Nevertheless, the use of cellphone surveillance technology is controversial. The devices have been used by the Justice Department, and in October, California passed a law requiring police to get a warrant before using the devices. Still, civil liberties groups have decried the use of stingrays and related technology, saying it raises serious concerns about privacy and police searches.
The documents published Wednesday consequently raise an array of questions. Matt Cagle, an ACLU lawyer working on the case, told BuzzFeed News that certain spaces — the inside of homes, for example — are protected from "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the Fourth Amendment. That means police normally have to get warrants to enter those spaces, but Cagle noted that cellphone surveillance technology allows law enforcement to "peer inside," potentially without a warrant.
The documents don't explain Anaheim's procedures for using the devices. Instead, they merely mention "court approval," which Cagle noted is easier to get than a warrant.
The ACLU also raised alarm over a city of a few hundred thousand residents having "this kind of arsenal." In the past, the federal government and just a small number of very large cities — such as Los Angeles and Chicago — were known to have this kind of surveillance capability.
"The scope of what Anaheim possesses here was surprising," Cagle said, "especially in light of Anaheim's medium size."
He added that if the city's police department has stingrays and dirtboxes, it raises questions about how widespread this technology is in other medium and smaller cities.
The documents also reveal that Anaheim has programs to loan its surveillance devices to other agencies, though it isn't clear if the technology was actually used elsewhere.
Many questions also remain unanswered; not only did officials decline to comment to BuzzFeed News Wednesday, they also apparently resisted the ACLU's efforts to obtain the documents, then heavily redacted them after a lawsuit was filed. Cagle said that leaves a lot of information unknown, but added that as more information about the devices emerges the "tide is turning" and "community members want more transparency and they want to exercise oversight."
"Basically police departments like Anaheim shouldn't be turning cell phones into spy networks," Cagle said.