New report details tracking warrants in Minnesota

A new report from the Minnesota court system to the legislature details how often cellular surveillance devices are being used to track criminal suspects in Minnesota, but it is also raising questions about whether such court orders should be public, or remain under seal. Of specific interest to privacy advocates is the use of StingRay, a device that can locate cell phones by mimicking a cell phone tower. 

FIRST REPORT: State of surveillance: StingRay warrants sealed despite changes in Minnesota law

The report, which is required under state law, says law enforcement was granted 1,820 court orders in a two-year period for devices that could locate suspects. The courts never denied an application. And, for the most part, all the orders remain under seal. 

According to the report, suspects were tracked three different ways: through their cell phone (1,202 times), by a GPS tracking device on a car (436 times), and through their social media (182 times).

“Law enforcement is tracking us with our digital devices more than they’re aware of,” said Hennepin County Public Defender Shawn Webb, who tracks the issue. 

Two years ago, the legislature added a special provision for electronic tracking devices, like StingRay. That statute requires that law enforcement needed probable cause for a tracking warrant, and that they would generally become public after 90 days.

But the report reveals that the vast majority of those warrants are being applied for under an older provision of the law, that doesn’t specify what device is used, only requires reasonable suspicion a crime has been committed, and the court order remains permanently sealed.

“The disconnect is we have these two statutes that overlap in subject matter, but doesn’t say which is controlling,” Webb said. “Until there’s clarity from legislature or courts there’s going to be this overlap, and law enforcement gets to choose which statute they’ll use.”

According to the report, mobile tracking, a GPS device attached to an automobile, was used 436 times, Pen Register (incoming numbers) and Tap and Trace (outgoing numbers) was used 35 times, and electronic tracking, a device known as StingRay, was used 89 times. But that’s only when the court order specified what type of device was used. On 1,260 occasions it was not specified. It appears that 1,202 of those occasions, it was the cell phone that was being tracked. 

More than half the court orders/warrants (804) were applied for by local law enforcement, and the majority were used in narcotics cases (758), followed by sex crimes (206) and homicide (147).