Insert ‘most transparent administration in history’ comment here

Fresh off the brazen move by U.S. Marshals to sweep up and hide a local police department’s use of “Stingray” technology to vacuum up cellphone data, the AP now reports that it was apparently a matter of policy.

The Obama administration has been quietly advising local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology they are using to sweep up basic cellphone data from entire neighborhoods, The Associated Press has learned.

Citing security reasons, the U.S. has intervened in routine state public records cases and criminal trials regarding use of the technology. This has resulted in police departments withholding materials or heavily censoring documents in rare instances when they disclose any about the purchase and use of such powerful surveillance equipment.

Federal involvement in local open records proceedings is unusual. It comes at a time when President Barack Obama has said he welcomes a debate on government surveillance and called for more transparency about spying in the wake of disclosures about classified federal surveillance programs.

One well-known type of this surveillance equipment is known as a Stingray, an innovative way for law enforcement to track cellphones used by suspects and gather evidence. The equipment tricks cellphones into identifying their owners’ account information and transmitting data to police as if it were a phone company’s tower. That allows police to obtain cellphone information without having to ask for help from service providers, such as Verizon or AT&T, and can locate a phone without the user even making a call or sending a text message.

But without more details about how the technology works and under what circumstances it’s used, it’s unclear whether the technology might violate a person’s constitutional rights or whether it’s a good investment of taxpayer dollars.

We now know that local and often federal law enforcement officials aren’t using this technology to catch terrorists. They’re using them for more mundane policing, like catching people suspected of drug crimes. So the Obama administration is urging opaqueness from local police agencies about a technology that may be violating the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans because, in the administration’s opinion, revealing the details of said technology could jeopardize national security.

Let’s break this down:

If it’s true that revealing the particulars of this sort of technology could jeopardize national security (I don’t know if that’s the case, but let’s assume that it could), then the federal government can do one of two things. First, it can prohibit local police from using the technology, keeping it only for cases of legitimate national security. (We’ll also have to assume that using the technology for national security reasons is also constitutional.)

Alternately, the federal government could let local police use the technology, possibly violating the rights of American citizens in the course of investigations that have nothing to do with national security, then conspire with those same local police agencies to prevent American citizens from discovering that their rights may have been violated.

The Obama administration has chosen the latter.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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