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Baltimore police facing scrutiny over cellphone tracking

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Civil liberties groups jointly filed a complaint on Tuesday regarding the use of cellphone trackers by the Baltimore Police Department.

{mosads}The Center for Media Justice, Color of Change and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute are calling for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to investigate the Baltimore police for allegedly violating civil liberties laws, The Washington Post reports.

The groups claim that Baltimore police are violating the Communications Act, which requires a license to access frequencies normally used by wireless carriers.

According to the Post, however, an official from the FCC said law enforcement is exempt from laws that normally require such licenses, and that the trackers in question did not access the frequencies for which a license is normally needed.

This directly contrasts with a 2014 public notice the FCC issued, citing that it is illegal for any group — including state and local law enforcement — to use devices that jam or interfere with cellphone signals. 

The FCC notice does not specify or exempt particular frequencies for devices that interfere with phone signals.

The FCC has not yet responded to a request for comment from The Hill.

The devices used by Baltimore police, known as stingray phone trackers, gets nearby phones to connect with them instead of cellphone towers, and allows the stingray operator to gain data from the connected phones, like the phone’s location. When the stringray is in use it interferes with the phone’s ability to connect with cellphone towers and make calls.

While the device may be used elsewhere, experts speculate that Baltimore police are the most egregious violators.

“It seems quite likely that the Baltimore Police Department makes the heaviest use of this technology of any police department in the country,” Laura Moy told the Baltimore Sun. Moy is a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center who is representing the groups.

The complaint comes shortly after a Department of Justice probe slammed Baltimore police for discriminatory policing practices.


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