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Baltimore police accused of violating federal law with stingray cellphone trackers

Complaint alleges that cell-site simulators interfere with emergency calls and disproportionately affect African-American communities

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The Baltimore Police Department has been accused of violating federal law with its use of stingray cellphone trackers. In a complaint filed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday, three civil rights groups said the police department hasn't obtained the license required to use stingray technology, adding that it violates the Communications Act by "willfully interfering" with cellular networks. As Ars Technica reports, the 38-page complaint also argues that the use of stingray trackers disproportionately affects African-American communities.

Stingrays, or cell-site simulators, imitate 2G cell towers to gather information on nearby phones — including their location — and have been shown to disrupt cellular service and 911 calls. Until recently, little was known about how police use stingrays, though police in Baltimore and Chicago have since acknowledged deploying the devices. A report from the New York Civil Liberties Union earlier this year showed that the NYPD used them on more than 1,000 occasions between 2008 and May 2015.

"widespread network interference"

The FCC complaint was filed by Georgetown University law professor Laura Moy on behalf of three civil rights groups: Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, and the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. The groups are calling on the FCC to prohibit the use of cell-site simulators by the Baltimore Police Department, pointing to "widespread network interference caused by rampant unlicensed transmissions." The complaint comes days after the release of a report from the Justice Department, which said that Baltimore police have systematically targeted African-American residents, often on tenuous legal grounds.

"It seems quite likely that the Baltimore Police Department makes the heaviest use of this technology of any police department in the country," Moy tells The Baltimore Sun.

But it's unclear whether the FCC will take any action. Lawyers and privacy experts tell Ars Technica that the complaint would have been stronger with an example of someone whose 911 calls were actually disrupted by the technology, or someone who was targeted by stingrays because of their race. Others say the FCC is unlikely to interfere with the use of a device that has already been approved.

"I’m not optimistic just because I think the FCC believes protecting law enforcement’s ability to spy is more important than Americans ability to make emergency calls," Chris Soghoian, of the American Civil Liberties Union, tells Ars Technica.