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Local Police Departments Invest In Cell Phone Spy Tools


Increasingly, police departments are turning to military-grade surveillance tools to help fight crime - a trend that worries privacy advocates. A new investigation by CityLab, which is part of Atlantic Media, documents the spread of tools that let police collect cellphone data. CityLab reporter George Joseph joins me in the studio now. Welcome to the program.

GEORGE JOSEPH: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And you we're looking at the 50 largest police departments in the country. What did you find out about the use of these tools?

JOSEPH: Well, we found through public records requests that the majority of the largest police departments across the country have primarily two types of devices - cellphone-interception devices, which are used to grab our phone data, such as our call logs and text logs out of the air, and cellphone-extraction devices, which are used when police have phones in their possession to actually suck up content from our phones, such as deleted messages, deleted photos, Google location history - that type of thing.

SIEGEL: One of the tools you write about is called a dirtbox. Describe a dirtbox.

JOSEPH: So a dirtbox is a favorite tool of the NSA and the military. And what it does is it can be put in a plane or a helicopter to fly overhead - for example, over a protest - and it can track almost 10,000 phones at once and also scoop up your text messages, your phone calls - like, really intimate types of data that we haven't really seen in use in the domestic circle before.

SIEGEL: And is the rationale for police using a device like a dirtbox - is it for combating ordinary crime? Is it counterterrorism? Is it crowd control? What would you say?

JOSEPH: Well, for the use of these cell-site simulators in general, which is the larger sort of term for these tools, police really like them because they give them a lot of data that can then allow them to do things like, in the future, look for suspect leads and witness leads. So the more data you have, the more powerful you're able to sort of analyze a crime scene and look retroactively at a community and what crimes are happening.

SIEGEL: To the extent that I'm concerned about privacy, I find this a little worrying. On the other hand, to the extent that I'm concerned about terrorism on native soil and having police departments that have to deal with it, perhaps I should be reassured that they have these tools.

JOSEPH: Well, certainly, if your opinion is that police need to have as much data as they possibly can to fight terrorism or to find suspects, then these tools are great because they allow us to take so much information and thus sort of map out our social networks - figure out who our friends are, where we've been - very intimate data. But it's sort of leading us to a new threshold of power where, you know, in the past, this type of information would've taken weeks for a whole team of police just to acquire. Now it takes a few keystrokes.

SIEGEL: Are police department's use of these tools - is it governed by law?

JOSEPH: Yes, to some degree, it's governed by law. But the laws are often very locally specific. So it's not one clear federal sort of guideline for how these tools should be used.

SIEGEL: And in the course of your reporting, have you come up with claims of great success that police have made based on their use of these tools?

JOSEPH: Certainly. I mean, when you look at the usage logs that police put out from time to time about the use of these tools, we see them using it for, for example, kidnapping cases, for armed-robbery cases - that sort of thing, which a lot of people would support the use in. We also see them for things that seem like much lower crimes like cellphone robberies and that type of thing.

And the question is, if police are using these very powerful tools for very low-level crimes also, not just for extreme emergencies, what's then happening to the innocent people whose data is then being searched constantly? And we've also seen in past reporting that these tools are mostly being used in African-American and low-income communities. So it's not a shared burden that everyone in society is sharing in terms of being searched by these tools.

SIEGEL: Could somebody who's very concerned about her privacy or somebody who's a very savvy criminal, download something to thwart these devices?

JOSEPH: To some degree, you can use certain apps that help protect you, such as Signal. That's something a lot of people are turning to. But to other degrees, just having a phone in general is always going to be providing some data trail. So for those who are particularly concerned about being followed or tracked, most people advise you, don't carry a phone on you at all times.

SIEGEL: CityLab reporter George Joseph, thank you very much.

JOSEPH: Oh, appreciate it. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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