The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office plans to obtain cellphone spying equipment to track suspected criminals and find missing people.
A $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would pay for the “stingray” technology, which would cost the county about $42,000 a year to operate. The Board of Supervisors will weigh the proposal when it meets Tuesday.
The San Jose Police Department and Alameda County Sheriff’s Office already use the cellphone trackers. Civil rights groups have raised concerns that the technology could abrade privacy and lead to abuse.
Stingrays, also called “cell site simulators” or “IMSI catchers” mimic cellphone towers, sending signals to trick mobile phones into transmitting their locations. The sheriff’s office said it would obtain search warrants before using the device, unless it’s an emergency.
The “phone triangulation system,” as it’s called in a county memo, would help catch “armed and dangerous fugitives,” “at-risk missing adults and children and aid in recovering victims of human trafficking.”
It would track location only and not eavesdrop on conversations or texts, the memo states. Because the technology is mobile, the sheriff’s office would share it with other agencies as needed.
Last fall, Supervisor Joe Simitian told the county to study the possibility of an ordinance that would require public input before acquiring new surveillance technology. That proposal has yet to come back for discussion.
Simitian said the county should take the time to collect public feedback before accepting the federal grant. On Friday, the sheriff’s office met with community groups to present the plan and gather input.
“Right now, we’ve got more questions than answers,” Simitian told San Jose Inside. “There are still some important issues to sort out about the use of this technology, the limits on that use and the privacy protections which may or may not be assured. I can’t see moving ahead this quickly, given the limited opportunity for public review.”
San Jose police had come under scrutiny earlier last year after it came out that they quietly bought a drone. The purchase was slipped into a City Council agenda as a nondescript item on the consent calendar. Now, the SJPD is making up for the lack of transparency by hosting a series of meetings to give the community a chance to hear about how the unmanned aerial device would be used.
SJPD also uses a stingray device, which was the subject of an ABC7 news report and a Public Records Act request last spring.
The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that at least 48 agencies in 20 states use stingrays. Here’s a map, which the ACLU says “dramatically under-represents” their actual use because many agencies “shroud their purchase of stingrays in secrecy.”
According to the ACLU, at least 90 percent of California law enforcement agencies use surveillance technology, including facial recognition, cameras and license plate scanners. But those same agencies sought public input before acquiring those technologies only 14 percent of the time, per a a report release last fall by the ACLU.
- The county will spend $1.8 million over 20 months to help 13,250 residents who qualify for federal immigration relief and protect them against fraudulent immigration services and misinformation. The money comes from Measure A, an eighth-cent tax increase voters approved in 2012, and would go to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to disperse to other groups.
- An multi-agency agreement to feed info into a regional data fusion center will cost the county nearly $200,000 this year. The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center was founded in 2008 to collect data from Bay Area law enforcement agencies and analyze data for trends and patterns os suspicious activity. Or, in the spirit of the Homeland Security grant initiative that funds it, to scout out “potential terrorist operations.”
- County Executive Jeff Smith’s office is asking to set aside $1.3 million from the affordable housing fund three affordable housing projects: Monterra Village, Redwoods Apartments and Wheeler Manor.
WHAT: Board of Supervisors meets
WHEN: 9am Tuesday
WHERE: County Government Center, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose
INFO: Clerk of the Board, 408.299.5001