Documents: Houston Police Use “StingRay” Surveillance Technology to Sweep Up Cellphone Data


For the past several years, the Houston Police Department (HPD) has been quietly using contentious surveillance equipment that can amass records from cellphone calls and text messages even up to a half a mile away, records obtained by Truthoutand Houston city council agendas reveal.

HPD purchased the surveillance software, called “StingRay II” in October 2012 after Houston city council members approved $100,200 in asset forfeiture funds to be used for its purchase. The department appears to have obtained the surveillance hardware as early as 2007, according to city council meeting minutes.

The department is just one of a growing list of local police departments across the nation which have obtained the technology and have kept its use secret, citing nondisclosure agreements with Harris Corporation, the technology’s manufacturer, and the FBI.

Houston residents who have nothing to hide from law enforcement should still be concerned about the technology’s use, because, if they happen to be in the same neighborhood as a police target, their information will also be spied upon, and possibly retained by the department for an unspecified amount of time.

The portable device is known as a cell site simulator, which collects vast amounts of cellphone data by mimicking a cellphone tower, sending out a faux signal that tricks cellphones nearby into transmitting their locations, and identifying information and communication records – in real time.

The technology was originally developed for the military and intelligence agencies, including the NSA, and is part of the growing and controversial trend of local police departments obtaining military hardware and spy craft technologies throughout the United States.

According to another document obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an HPD homicide sergeant requested that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), grant Harris Corporation permission to sell the city a StingRay device. Because the device intercepts and interferes with cellphone networks, which are regulated by federal law, Harris Corporation needed the FCC’s approval.

According to Houston city council meeting minutes from November 2007, HPD officials were granted approval for $271,430 in grant funding to aquire “communications tracking software and hardware” from Harris Corporation.Another set of city council minutes from June 2011, show HPD was granted approval for another $399,107 in grant funding to aquire additional “covert surveillance equipment, software and training” from Harris Corporation. Meeting minutes showHPD was granted approval in October 2012 for the purchase of the software revealed in the purchase orders Truthout obtained.

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