Minnesota law enforcement tracking cell phones

Originally published 12/10/2013 and updated 6/13/2014

Minneapolis, Minn. - It's not just the NSA spying on your cell phone. KARE 11 has learned that two Minnesota law enforcement agencies have the ability to do the same.

In pursuit of suspects, The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension have both used a tactic known as a "tower dumping," which gives police data about the identity, activity and location of any phone that connects to the targeted cellphone towers over a set span of time, usually an hour or two. A typical dump covers multiple towers, and wireless providers, and can net information from thousands of phones.

"This entire phenomenon is shrouded in secrecy," said Chris Soghoian with the ACLU. "The vast majority of people whose information is being collected are innocent of any crime. They're never told their information was requested and they're never told their information ended up in a government database."

Both agencies have also purchased cellular exploitation devices that go by the names of KingFish or StingRay. The devices mimic a cell phone tower and allow the agencies to extract data from nearby cell phones.

KARE 11's findings were part of a nationwide investigation conducted by USA Today which found at least 25 local agencies across the country are using these devices.

Few are willing to talk about them or what happens to innocent people's data that is collected.

The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and BCA denied our requests for on-camera interviews.

A spokesperson for the sheriff's office said, "The device is used for serious felony-level crime or an emergency when locating an individual is critical. The Chief Deputy approves its use in each particular case and there is a court order in place authorizing its use."

Any information KARE 11 received, including a purchase order for the device, was obtained through requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act. Most of what we requested was denied on the basis that it would compromise investigative techniques.

"It just behooves me and it's arrogant kind of attitude of government," said Minnesota privacy advocate Rich Neumeister.

Neumeister plans to lobby the legislature to update it's decades-old privacy laws in the next session to require a warrant when using cellular exploitation devices.

"You've got to remember, information is power," said Neumeister. "And power unchecked, in the long run, can hurt us all."

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. )


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