Wauwatosa, Wisconsin (Pontiac) – As the spotlight increases on police surveillance nationwide, communities are tuning in. Too many, however, are still unaware of sophisticated digital data-gathering operations active in their own cities. While some departments have confirmed use of these technologies, others exist in a grey area. The Wauwatosa Police Department is one such agency.
The revelation came after Pontiac Tribune revisited documents released by Wisconsin’s ACLU in 2015. They detailed 579 investigations where a cell site simulator, or Stingray, was used or requested. These trick phones and other devices into divulging information by mimicking cell phone towers.
Recent research by the University of Washington in both Seattle and Milwaukee suggested Stingrays may be able to overpower legitimate tower signals. Although Stingrays are meant for targeted surveillance, nearby devices are also vulnerable. Departments nationwide have insisted Stingrays are just used for tracking purposes. However, they can also intercept calls, texts, and even emails. Leaked FBI documents also confirm Stingrays can potentially cause service drops, or other device malfunctions.
Although the Stingray logs belonged to the Milwaukee Police Department, numerous other law enforcement agencies were listed as well. Among them was the Wauwatosa Police Department, from a Milwaukee suburb. The case was dated 7/7/2015, and involved an unspecified heroin investigation.
Despite being named in the logs, WPD denied an 2016 open records request pertaining to Stingray use. Initially, Tosa PD was simply asked to provide a statement confirming or denying their use.
After no reply, records were requested under the Freedom Of Information Act. Fourty-five days later, Tosa PD denied their use, though a formal document denial was absent. It was finally provided. Stating; “The Wauwatosa Police Department has not used, nor collaborated in the use of, a Cell Site Simulator within the jurisdiction of the Wauwatosa Police Department.” The entry in the logs note that the request for a Stingray was outside MPD’s jurisdiction, so likely inside Wauwatosa.
Localized Data Surveillance
Stingray use is notoriously shrouded in secrecy whenever it surfaces. This largely stems from non-disclosure agreements which agencies must sign before acquiring Stingrays. Normally, these are contracts between the customer and manufacturer barring public disclosure, even in court. Thus, any department using the devices have their hands legally tied. Perhaps this largely played a role in WPD’s denial despite having requested its use from MPD.
Evidence of some localized surveillance in Wauwatosa has popped up periodically. Until the Milwaukee PD logs, however, it was difficult if not impossible to confirm Tosa PD actually used Stingray. Among past incidents is surveillance reported by the family of Jay Anderson Jr, shot by Tosa PD in 2016. Soon after beginning protests, every member of Anderson’s family experienced identical cell phone malfunctions.
The phones would allegedly turn off or on unprompted, and drop incoming or outgoing communications. Mrs. Anderson reported every picture on her phone disappeared only to reappear later in the week. “The phones were hacked man”, Mr. Anderson told the author during an interview last year. The issues eventually shifted to their computers and emails.
Years before, local teens targeted by a massive drug crackdown in Tosa from 2011-2014 also reported surveillance. It often seemed officers were omniscient of the teen’s movements and hangouts. These sparked rumors of cameras in the trees of a particular park hit hard by the crackdown. No cameras were ever found, and the stories mostly discounted. Stingray would’ve been a keen way to turn the teens phones into geo-location devices.
The crackdown also coincided with Tosa PD “providing technical support with cell data recovery and analysis” in 2012 via it’s Special Operations Group (SOG). This was mentioned in annual reports which were three years late to publication. WPD stopped publishing the documents the year the crackdown began to escalate. These too had to be open records requested by the author, despite them being specifically purposed for public viewing. Although WPD requested Milwaukee PD’s Stingray, their own documents suggest Tosa may have it’s own means of drag-netting cell data.
At least some of this may involve the use of warrants to obtain extensive troves of social media data. A recent three part Pontiac Tribune investigative series actually saw this take center stage. While investigating then-18 year old Ryan Sanders and friends for being an alleged gang, Tosa PD issued warrants directly to Facebook Incorporated. Almost immediately, officers accessed private messages, recent posts, source IP addresses, and other data associated with Sanders and his collective. Certain officers who’d later be reassigned to WPD’s Special Operations Group worked the Sanders case due to their individual experiences with social media data.
Stingray’s have been an open government secret for some time, but aren’t alone in the arsenal. Clearly, Tosa PD was capable of some form of data surveillance before requesting Stingray assistance in 2015. What that was, whether their own cell site simulator or something else, remains a mystery. Tosa PD’s fickle denial of it’s use, however, show’s residents can’t expect a forthcoming answer.