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Boston councilors question secret police use of cell-phone interceptor tech

Committee on Government Accountability, Transparency & Accessibility on March 22, 2022

WBZ reports on a City Council hearing, led by Julia Mejia (at large) yesterday. You can watch the entire hearing above.

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Comments

Nobody questions underground wires or platform barriers tech because we have none.

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Voting closed 9

And get to the bottom of this. After that we should post it on Facebook and TikTok to get the word out.

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Voting closed 24

This is the technology they use to track down missing people, runaways and endangered people. Treating it like scary spy tech is laughable.

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Voting closed 41

But it can man-in-the-middle the cell signal of anyone within range. That means it can do things like recording the identity of any phone at a protest, or the phone numbers they call. In a lot of cases, it can force a phone to a lower-security protocol that it has the ability to decrypt, letting them listen in on phone calls.

If the intent was to use this just to track down missing people, it would have been bought with on-the-record funding. Or they would have made sure that the purchase was known, since they'd know people will freak about about the purchase, and they can at least say "we're not trying to hide this, we're using it for XYZ, here's how we'll be accountable for its use".

Nope, they bought it as close to under the table as they could and didn't tell anyone about it. That does not exactly fill me with confidence in their ability or willingness to use it within the bounds of the law.

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Voting closed 41

And the Massachusetts wiretap law doesn’t allow for wiretaps to investigate protests. It’s strictly limited to organized crime investigations.

It’s important to get the facts correct here. These devices are not being used for improper spying on citizens, nor is that the reason they were purchased. The ACLU knows this, and Kade Crockford is making a show to justify their salary and keep the pipeline of money from gullible people flowing.

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Voting closed 8

The problem is the law is decades old, and the protection against unwarranted "wiretaps" is limited to audio recording only. Not video, not cell phone location data, not facial recognition software, not license plate scanners, not your home Internet connection logs, not upcoming stuff they're still working on like digital dog noses that can identify you by smell, because none of that existed when the law was written.

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Voting closed 9

Why didn't the police department just openly buy it?

Also, it shouldn't be a problem to get a warrant for those uses every time they use it then, right?

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Voting closed 24

LOL! Yes, this surveillance technology that was specifically developed for the military and intelligence communities, was purchased with under-the-radar funds from civil asset forfeitures, and has traditionally been used by law enforcement to spy on protesters will surely only be used to find missing children. It blows my mind how naive people can be.

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Voting closed 21

I've been an expert witness on several child welfare cases in which DCF has called police departments to have them ping someone's cell phone to locate them. Police departments will do basically anything DCF asks them to do, and no warrant or consent is needed if there's a DCF investigation.

And before anyone says that that's fine and necessary for saving poor endangered children, let me specify these were not remotely emergency situations where a child was thought to be in a trafficking situation or was with someone actively unhinged; these were all things like "routine" DCF situations where DCF got a report about school attendance or disagreeing with a pediatrician or whatever, spoke with the parent who politely asked to meet with them at a later time as is their legal right but didn't want to specify exactly where they were. I've seen several where the record stated the child was known to not be with the parent, such as the kid did something at school, parent was called, said they were at work so couldn't be there for another 45 minutes, and DCF asked to have the parent's phone pinged to verify the parent was at work and not lying about their location. For those not familiar, almost all DCF investigations are for neglect, not abuse, almost all are unfounded, and most of it especially in this well-funded state is just policing of how poorer folks raise their kids. Less than 1% of it is the stuff that makes the headlines where kids are starving in crack dens.

I see police reports as well where cell tracing was done because someone presented with some possible psych issues, like coming into a police station and making paranoid-seeming reports, but there was no evidence of any threats or access to weapons or anything like that. The police departments will ping the person's phone and state in their report where the person went next. I've seen this done with well-being checks too; person isn't at home so they ping the phone and go do the well-being check where the person is (and probably intentionally went so no "concerned relative" could send cops there).

This technology needs to have very clear parameters that it's only used for actual dire emergencies, not "contempt of cop" or "the constitution doesn't apply to people with psychiatric disabilities" situations.

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Voting closed 24

Last thing the cops want to do or even care about is pinging a phone to find some missing 17 year old who is allowed to be on his own anyway.

The best part about this story is that the mayors, DA, and several city councilors know about these purchases years ago and they were well aware how they were used, why they were used and who used them. There have been public records requests on this as well and this is because the technology is explained anytime it is used. There are dozens of police reports that reference it.

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Voting closed 12

I thought elected officials didn't know about these purchases, since the police bought them secretly using seized funds.

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Voting closed 6

Do you know what kind of records are kept of this technology being used and what the safeguards are on accessing it? Is it like accessing certain databases where there's a clear audit trail and employees would be criminally charged for using it inappropriately? Does it require an approval process prior to access? Or can anyone in the department easily just up and trace someone with no one knowing unless they looked into it?

At least when I see it used in DCF documentation, it isn't entered in the record as "asked if this could be employed in this case and someone had to get back to me"; it's more like "called and had them ping the phone and they told me the person was at X." Mind you, this is based on all different departments, not only Boston; I work in several neighboring courts in addition to Suffolk.

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Voting closed 12

The Stingray and the Cell phone ping. Same concept, one just requires more help from the Cell phone companies.

The Stingray stuff has more legal ramifications in terms of the City attorneys trying to justify how it is used and why it is used. Much of that stuff is out of my wheelhouse and I don't feel like looking into it. I do know they actually get warrants for most of its use.

But what you are talking about are the cell phone pings to locate someone. As you know DCF is not the best run agency and their investigators aren't always great either. Not very people friendly and for all intents and purposes are simply a CYA agency.

To answer your question most of the cell phone pings the police get don't come through DCF. But I'm guessing you are talking about a BPS school administrator filing a 51A and after the report DCF wants to "find" the kid? A situation like that I'm not sure if DCF can contact Verizon on their own and request a ping. I thought it had to go through Law Enforcement but I could be wrong. But yea, police fill out a form asking to ping the phone. That form has to explain the reasons for the ping and the reasons are your standard "are they in danger? are they on drugs? If left alone will they hurt themselves or others? Is there a section 12 in place?"

So to put it in simpler terms, police ask Verizon to ping a phone. Verizon wants to know why, so police tell them. Verizon then says yes or no. Of course Verizon is also in the CYA game right? If they say no and the police get a subpoena or a warrant and something bad happens to the kid, Verizon gets sued. They won't get sued for the situations you describe but you probably know that already.

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Voting closed 10

Okay.

Can I set up a device to tell me when you come and go to your house because it is for your own safety. I would never EVER use it to gain entry to your home anc stealing things and poisoning your food in the fridge without being caught.

Surveillance is safety!
Privacy is suspicious!

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Voting closed 8

The police should not be making secret purchases with secret slush funds. There should be transparency and accountability.

When there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, law enforcement surveillance should require a warrant. If they need a warrant to tap a land line and determine where the call came from, then they should have to get a warrant to surveil a wireless phone. Just because the tech companies do it is not an excuse. If necessary, then pass legislation to allow exceptions to find missing persons, but it doesn't take a lot of effort to imagine a situation where someone abuses this technology to spy on their neighbor or harass their ex-spouse, etc.

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Voting closed 27

Given the level of BPD corruption, I find it easy to believe that some person or group in the Department is regularly using the Stingray to hoover up data to sell to the sleezy spy outfits that use it.

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Voting closed 19

I didn’t watch nor do I care to watch but did Mejia have to tilt her head the whole day to prevent the hat from falling off?

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Voting closed 9

Speaking of this committee, is it transparent where every city councilor actually resides?

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Voting closed 15

How about Apple and Google redesign their technology to break these spoof cell towers?

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Voting closed 7

What's with the beret?

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Voting closed 4