(KMSP) - A Fox 9 Investigation has revealed that tracking warrants for a surveillance device called StingRay have routinely been kept sealed, despite a law requiring them to become public with 90 days.
The StingRay device is used by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension about 60 times a year, said BCA Superintendent Drew Evans. Hennepin County Sheriff also had a StingRay, but a spokesperson said they discontinued it after using it only four times.
"This technology has been absolutely critical in locating some of Minnesota's most violent criminals, more quickly than we ever were before," Evans said.
Law enforcement used the technology last month when a disgruntled client allegedly gunned down a clerk at a St. Paul law firm and then went on the run. Police had the suspect's cell phone and tracked him down.
Stingray was originally developed for the military, part of a whole class of devices known as "cellular exploitation technologies," that go by names like Kingfish, Gossamer, and Fish-Hawk. Due to a confidentiality agreement with the FBI and StingRay’s manufacturer, Harris Corp., law enforcement is not even allowed to refer to the device by name.
Stingray works by essentially mimicking a cell phone tower. It can re-route up to 10,000 cell phone signals in a three mile radius, allowing law enforcement to track down a single cell phone, down to within a few feet.
"Just this week we were able to locate a level 3 sexual offender that was non-compliant, a suspect in a series of serial rapes, and a homicide suspect, this week alone," he explained.
TRACKING THE TRACKERS
Independent journalist, Sam Richards believes he first spotted Stingray being used by small aircraft circling the Twin Cities and then discovering a similar pattern in other cities.
He discovered 62 small aircraft registered to dummy corporations connected to the Justice Department. The Associated Press later confirmed his reporting.
Recently, Richards believes someone in law enforcement used Stingray to spy on protesters occupying the fourth precinct in Minneapolis after the police killing of Jamar Clark.
Using an app called "Snoop Snitch," he spotted cell phones automatically switching over to a more powerful cell tower.
"I think they were honestly collecting names and locations of people," said Richards.
According to the BCA, the equipment looks for a specific targeted phone. "We are not able to identify specific people like 'Drew Evans' on the network or someone else," said Evans.
THE EFFORT TO MAKE TRACKING INFORMATION PUBLIC FAILS
Two years ago, Privacy Rights Advocate, Rich Neumeister lobbied Minnesota lawmakers to require a court order for Stingray, one that would become public.
"I have a distrust of law enforcement when it comes to this Stingray and Kingfish technology," said Neumeister.
According to State Representative John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, law enforcement didn't want to call it a search warrant, so they compromised on something they call a 'tracking warrant'.
Like a search warrant, a tracking warrant still requires probable cause, and must still be signed by a judge.
But a tracking warrant would automatically become public after 90 days. And the court would send a so-called target letter to the subject of the warrant, letting them know their phone was traced.
Law enforcement could ask a judge to seal the tracking warrant for an additional time, but that was supposed to be the exception, not the rule.
"The sweet spot we arrived on tracking warrant is 90 days. There's no reason we should be keeping this data longer," said Lesch.
The Fox 9 Investigators made a troubling discovery when going to court houses, there were no tracking warrants. They were all apparently sealed, with no plan to unseal. In fact, the court clerks were under orders not even to acknowledge their existence and there was no plan to unseal them. That's not the way the law was supposed to work.
For two months, the chief judges of Hennepin and Ramsey County declined to talk on camera. A spokesperson for the Minnesota judicial branch, Beau Berentson, said the request by the Fox 9 Investigators: "raised valid issues" “…when electronic tracking warrants should be unsealed."
And the courts in Ramsey and Hennepin counties are now reviewing “any sealed electronic tracking warrants.” “…determine whether any should be unsealed."
Fox 9 learned many judges didn't fully understand what they were signing: what statute applies to tracking warrants, or even what technology was being used.
And target letters to those under surveillance have never been sent, in apparent violation of the law.
Lesch tells the Fox 9 Investigators that he was not aware of all the tracking warrants being sealed. "It surprises me because of course you have the exception, swallow the rule."
He said he doesn't know if he was misled by law enforcement on the issue.
ONE WARRANT MADE PUBLIC
Fox 9 could find only one tracking warrant was ever been made public. Ironically, it may go back to those pings Richards picked up at the fourth precinct.
Among the documents released in the Clark case, prosecutors needed a special court order to release a tracking warrant.
But it wasn't to collect the cell numbers of protesters, it was to find Jamar Clark's friend, Rayann Hayes.
The BCA had been unable to locate her to get a statement, so agents used her cell number to track her down with Stingray.