FCC urged to crack down on Baltimore police for using phone trackers

Civil rights groups say use of Stingrays is unauthorized, can interfere with emergency calls

Three civil rights groups have filed a formal complaint against Baltimore City police for using cell site simulator technology to investigate potential crimes, calling the process racially biased and unauthorized.

The groups called the use of Stingray phone tracker technology "racially discriminatory," and even a disruption of emergency calling services, according to the complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) early today.

The 37-page complaint by the Center for Media Justice, Color Of Change and the Open Technology Institute at New America calls on the FCC to enforce two sections of the Communications Act. That act requires the police to obtain a federal license to operate cell site (CS) simulator equipment on frequency bands that are exclusively licensed to cellular phone carriers in Baltimore, according to the complaint.

The Baltimore Police Department "has no license whatsoever," it adds.

A CS simulator, usually about the size of a briefcase, works by mimicking a legitimate cell tower and by receiving the signals from nearby cell phones.

In that sense, any cell phone used to make an emergency call would not be able to reach a 911 call center, according to the complaint, which also raises concerns about racial bias.

"CS simulators disproportionately interfere with communications in communities of color, where police surveillance tools are disproportionately deployed...," the complaint says. "The Baltimore Police Department has long exhibited well-documented embedded racial bias, making excessive CS simulator use all the more concerning."

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