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Anchorage police give details on cellphone surveillance after ACLU records request

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 7, 2016
  • Published September 7, 2016

Anchorage officials said Wednesday the city has only sparsely used the cellphone surveillance equipment recently targeted by the American Civil Liberties Union for its ability to spy on Americans.

The disclosure by Anchorage police and the city's attorney, prompted by an ACLU of Alaska records request, came amid a national controversy about how law enforcement monitors cellphones of Americans. The ACLU has been petitioning law enforcement agencies around the country for information about a class of devices that track cellphone use and locations.

Anchorage police say their device is now obsolete.

Known by names like "StingRay" and "KingFish," the technology allows police departments to intercept cellphone signals. The small, rectangular devices can fit in a backpack and present themselves to phones as cellphone towers. The device can potentially capture texts, calls, emails and other data, but Anchorage police say their device was only capable of locating cellphones. 

The Anchorage Police Department is among at least 66 agencies in 23 states and the District of Columbia that own such devices, according to the ACLU. Most of the devices are manufactured by Harris Corp., a Florida-based defense contractor.

It wasn't a secret that Anchorage police had bought the equipment. Documents posted online show that the Anchorage Assembly authorized the purchase of the KingFish in July 2009. The city spent $109,600 on the device and another $9,600 to train four police officers to use it, the documents show.

During that Assembly meeting, then-Anchorage Police Chief Rob Huen — called up during the meeting by former Assemblyman Mike Gutierrez, who said the technology had "frightening implications" — said the equipment was funded by a federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security. Huen said the FBI in  Alaska also owned such a device but wasn't able to share it with local police.

Huen called the KingFish a "useful tool" that would only allow police to locate the cellphones of criminal suspects. He said the device wouldn't be used without a warrant.

Law enforcement in other cities, however, has been found to be using similar devices without warrants, though some states and federal agencies have formally adopted policies requiring warrants. Much of the technology has been shrouded in secrecy, with information released through court documents.

Until Wednesday, Anchorage officials had refused to discuss how or if the police were using the KingFish. APD spokeswoman Jennifer Castro emailed a statement last month declining to disclose the possession of tactical equipment, citing state and federal law that protects the confidentiality of investigative techniques.  

"APD rigorously follows the State and Federal Constitutions and abides by all requirements regarding appropriate legal process, including getting warrants, for utilization of any and all technological equipment during a law enforcement investigation," Castro wrote. A warrant signed by a judge is part of the "due process of law" guaranteed a citizen by the U.S. Bill of Rights and the Alaska Constitution.

In April, the ACLU of Alaska filed a records request with the city, asking for documents related to the possession and use of the device. The records request was first reported by KTUU.

"The StingRay, and related technology like the KingFish, has potentially a lot of ability to infringe upon people's privacy," said Joshua Decker, the executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, in an interview. "We think it's important, as a matter of good governance, that the public knows what our police departments have and how they use it."

During Wednesday's meeting of the Assembly's public safety committee, deputy APD chief Garry Gilliam said APD had only used the device about a dozen times since 2009.  

Gilliam said every situation involved a warrant, except for one case. He described that as an "emergency situation" to find a lost individual. He equated the technology to the "Find My iPhone" app, which helps people track down misplaced cellphones.

He called the city's equipment "outdated" and said it hadn't been used in more than a year. 

"It was close to outdated when we bought it," Gilliam said.

If the city planned to replace the KingFish, Gilliam said, the Assembly would have to approve the purchase. City records show that no other surveillance equipment has been purchased from Harris Corp., though other cities in the U.S. have sought to upgrade their surveillance devices in response to changing cellphone technology.

Gilliam said a detailed description of the specific cases where the KingFish was used would be released by the city as part of the response to the ACLU's records request. Neither he nor other officials could say Wednesday whether police had collected data on other people not named in the warrants in the course of using the device, such as by calling a device under investigation.

City attorney Bill Falsey said Wednesday that the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz investigated the issue and felt that most of the information was already available in the 2009 procurement documents.

"We thought we could bring some light to this early on," Falsey said. He called Wednesday's disclosures a "preview" of the complete response to the records request.

The Assembly was set to discuss the topic in an executive session on Tuesday, though Assembly chair Elvi Gray-Jackson said she was not sure after Wednesday's meeting whether that would happen.

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