For years, police in Anaheim, California have been using extensive surveillance equipment to eavesdrop on the cell phone calls of the local population, as well as the 16 million-plus Disneyland tourists the area receives annually, new documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California say.
Published on Wednesday, the documents show that a massive and sophisticated cell phone surveillance program has existed in the department since at least 2009 that includes Stingray and Dirtbox spying systems.
The equipment mimics a cell tower and tricks nearby cell phones to connect to them. They then capture the connected devices’ data, allowing law enforcement to track users’ locations and intercept calls and text messages. They are relatively small and easily transportable.
Dirtboxes are powerful military-grade spy tools traditionally attached to airplanes that can intercept and collect information on thousands of devices at once, and can even record voice data and crack encryption. Its use significantly increases the scope of police spying operations.
The revelations are significant and illustrates the danger of departments having the ability to secretly acquire surveillance equipment. Until now, the only documented usage of Dirtbox has been by the federal government and by police in larger cities like Los Angeles and Chicago.
“If a city of only a few hundred thousand people like Anaheim has purchased this wide array of devices, it begs the question of how widespread these tools really are,” ACLU-Northern California technology and civil liberties attorney Matt Cagle said. “Additionally, Anaheim has represented in its secretive funding requests that ‘every city in Orange County has benefited’ from its cellular surveillance equipment, raising further concerns about transparency, democracy, and accountability.”
Cagle says the documents also suggest that the police purchased a so-called Jugular device in 2013 – a lightweight handheld spying tool that gives officers the ability to literally peer inside buildings and private homes in order to capture data from individuals’ digital devices.
According to California law, police are supposed to obtain a warrant before using such equipment, but the newly released documents do not confirm if the Anaheim police department actually obtained warrants before utilizing them.
“The records state that Anaheim obtains a ‘court order’ or ‘court approval’ for use of the… devices, but a court order is not necessarily based on probable cause, as is required for a warrant,” Cagle said. “This is important because devices like the Jugular can be used to find devices… where people have the right to be secure from unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment.”
The documents further show that Anaheim police have loaned its surveillance equipment to departments in neighboring cities, which Cagle says has “subjected people all over Orange County to surveillance decisions made by unelected leaders from other communities.”
The ACLU obtained the heavily redacted documents through a public records lawsuit. Both police officials and city attorneys in Anaheim have refused to comment on the program citing ongoing litigation.