Baltimore Police are poised to again ramp up use of so-called stingray phone tracking technology after the Board of Estimates approved the purchase of a new $920,000 cell site simulator on Wednesday.

The department quietly acquired the original device in the mid-2000s and used it in secret thousands of times over the years. In recent years, effective tracking has been thwarted by 5G cellphones and networks, police Lt. Habib Kim told The Baltimore Banner.

“It’s overdue,” Kim said. “We’re talking 10 to 15 years where it hasn’t been [upgraded] at all.”

As a result, police reported declining usage of the device in recent years. In reports mandated by the legislature, from May 2020 through December 2020, police disclosed 420 “track attempts,” and said they used the device in 44 incidents involving “exigent circumstances.”

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But over the next 12 months in 2021, police made 171 attempts to use the device, and used it in 43 incidents involving exigent circumstances.

The new cell site simulator would help police “find what we need to find, where we need to find it,” Kim said.

Even with the technological challenges, Baltimore still uses it far more than other surrounding jurisdictions. Anne Arundel County Police reported using the device 16 times last year; in Baltimore County, police used the device 29 times in 2020. Maryland State Police used the cell site simulator 35 times in 2020, only citing exigent circumstances four times.

The city received only two bids and awarded the contract to New York-based Cognyte Software, which listed the German Ministry of the Interior, police in The Hague and the national police in Spain as prior customers.

Cell site simulators were developed as a tool to fight terrorism, but in municipal police departments they are typically used to track stolen cellphones or locate someone. They impersonate cellphone towers, forcing all phones in an area to connect to it, collecting their unique identifying information, and allowing police to pinpoint the target phone’s location.

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Baltimore has been on the front lines of the public’s evolving understanding of how the technology is used by law enforcement. As many people learned about the secret surveillance of their phones, it sparked privacy concerns, lawsuits, legislation and pushback from the court.

One lawsuit related to earlier use of the stingray continues to wind through federal court. In March 2020, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said the lawsuit should continue because not enough information about the device’s use had been revealed.

“Despite the government’s use of a sophisticated, wide-reaching, and hard-to-detect new surveillance tool — one with potentially significant implications for constitutional privacy — we know very little about how many searches it conducted, of whom, and what data it collected and stored,” Judge James A. Wynn Jr. wrote.

Baltimore Police used its cell site simulator, specifically a Hailstorm device, thousands of times beginning in 2007, and kept the usage secret at the insistence of the FBI, which instructed police and prosecutors to obtain court orders that obscured the use of the technology. Authorities were told to drop cases rather than disclose the method being used to find the information.

The device’s use burst into view in 2015, when a Baltimore Police detective was nearly held in contempt for invoking the nondisclosure agreement in court. In another hearing that same week, a city detective testified about police having used the device thousands of times. Other law enforcement agencies would subsequently disclose they, too, were using the technology.

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The state’s highest court ruled in 2016 that the Fourth Amendment precluded use of a cell site simulator without a warrant — the first such ruling of its kind in the country.

The state legislature passed a bill in 2020 that sought to limit use of the technology, including prohibiting police from using a stingray to obtain communication content and spelling out explicit criteria law enforcement must meet in order to justify such an order.

But Kim, of the Baltimore Police Department, says the new rules haven’t affected their use of the device. He said police always seek to establish probable cause, and while reporting requirements have changed, their deployment of the technology hasn’t. “It’s just reporting and verbiage changes,” he said.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said there remain concerns with cell site simulator technology, saying they invade the privacy of everyone in a given area, disrupt cell phone communications within as much as a 500-meter radius of the device and are disproportionately used on low-income communities and communities of color.

“We believe cell-site simulators rely on a vulnerability in our communications system that the government should help fix rather than exploit,” the organization told the Baltimore Banner.

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Kim said the device is used not only to track suspects, but people in danger. He cited an example of a man threatening to harm himself, and the man’s cell phone company said they were able to determine he was in an area covered by 5G networks, where police weren’t able to use their current device to track him. Police said that by the time they were able to locate him, he had taken his life.

At Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting, City Council President Nick Mosby expressed some concern about safeguarding use of cell site simulators. Kim responded that the equipment is behind two separate biometric doors, inside a secured garage, and two officers are needed to use the device, which he called a “built-in safeguard.”

The new law requires police agencies to report annual usage to the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, & Victim Services, which does not post the reports online. The Baltimore Police Department posts its reports on its website, and had not posted this year’s report until The Banner inquired.

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

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