The Chicago Police Department is fighting to keep a lid on how, when and where officers have used covert cellphone tracking systems — with an outside law firm billing the city more than $120,000 to battle a lawsuit that seeks those secret details.
Since 2005, the department has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on cell-site simulators manufactured by the Harris Corp. in Melbourne, Florida, records show. The devices — with names like StingRay and KingFish — capture cellphone signals.
Cops can use the technology, originally developed for the military, to locate cellphones. Police agencies in other states have revealed in court that StingRays and similar devices have been used to locate suspects, fugitives and victims in criminal investigations.
But privacy activists across the country have begun to question whether law enforcement agencies have used the devices to track people involved in demonstrations in violation of their constitutional rights. They also have concerns the technology scoops up the phone data of innocent citizens and police targets alike.
The Chicago Police Department uses the devices in investigations of kidnappings, murders and other serious crimes, police sources say.
Activists wonder whether a StingRay or a similar device was used to track protesters during the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012. Demonstrators were suspicious that the batteries in their cellphones seemed to become quickly depleted during the protests — something caused by cell-tower simulators. Indeed, the Chicago Reader reported last week that the police have opened at least six investigations involving spying on citizens, including NATO protesters, since 2009.