Chicago Police Sued for Refusing to Disclose Extent of Cell Phone Spying

Privacy activist Freddy Martinez sued the Chicago Police Department today to force release of records showing the extent of its use of sophisticated spying equipment that can trick residents’ and visitors’ cell phones into transmitting personal information to the police. 

The Freedom of Information Act suit also aims to discover whether the CPD has any procedural safeguards in place to protect the public’s Constitutional rights.

Cell site simulators, also known as IMSI catchers or stingrays, masquerade as cellphone towers to obtain data secretly from nearby cell phone users.  In a lawsuit filed in June, Chicago resident and privacy activist Freddy Martinez sued the Chicago Police to find out whether the department had purchased any of this equipment.  Records produced by the department have since shown that it has in fact acquired this equipment.

“Under FOIA, the public has a right to know the extent to which the police are secretly taking information from their cell phones and whether their Constitutional rights are being protected in the process,” said government transparency attorney Matt Topic of Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law, which represents Martinez in the suit. “The Chicago Police Department has refused to produce a single document that would show the extent this is happening and with what Constitutional safeguards.”

“Given the Chicago Police Department’s history of illegally targeting political activists for surveillance, people should be very concerned about its use of this equipment, which could be used to identify people who attend political protests and the people they’ve contacted,” said Martinez.  “It was only a few years ago that the courts dissolved the consent decree in the ACLU’s suit against the department for years of this kind of unconstitutional targeting.

Mr. Martinez filed a FOIA request with Chicago Police looking for records showing when, where, how, why, and by whom the Chicago Police deployed this equipment, any court orders allowing it, any policies governing the deployment, any records discussing the constitutionality of its use, and records showing exactly what happens to the data that the department obtains using this technology.  The CPD has refused to produce a single record in response.

The suit comes only a few months after the Supreme Court acknowledged in Riley v. California that cell phones are “now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”  The Court held that police therefore need a warrant before searching cell phones incident to an arrest.

“The public ought to know whether the Chicago Police Department is engaged in wholesale violations of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy,” said Topic.

A copy of the new suit, No. 14CH15338, is posted here: Freddy Martinez v. Chicago Police Department2Documents showing the CPD’s purchase of the spying equipment can be viewed here:  CPD Stingray Purchase Records.

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