Houston police chief answers questions about cellphone surveillance program

HPD purchases surveillance technology that can track calls, texts, locations

By Jace Larson - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - The Houston Police Department has bought surveillance technology that can track your calls, your texts and your location.

Council records show the city of Houston bought "covert surveillance technology," but city officials will not talk about it or what it can do. It is referred to as Stingray technology.

Stingray technology doesn't provide law enforcement with a way to listen to your calls or read your texts, but allows police to get a treasure trove of other information, Local 2 Investigates has confirmed.

Usually a cellphone connects to the nearest cell tower, but Stingray mimics a cellphone tower and tricks your phone into connecting to it instead.

The technology has privacy advocates concerned.

"With Stingray, it ends up collecting data from anywhere within a half-mile radius of where it is whether you are guilty or not," Houston ACLU attorney Satinder Sing told Local 2 investigative reporter Jace Larson. "Law enforcement has been so secret about this. They have actively tried to shroud the way they use these Stingrays and the fact whether they even have them at all."

JUDICIAL APPROVAL

Local 2 has learned the technology doesn't require a search warrant for police to gather your data, but Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said his department always gets a judge's approval for its covert surveillance program.

"In many cases, our policies are much more restrictive than state law allows in these types of techniques," McClelland said.

Sing said not all law enforcement across the country get judicial approval before using Stingray technology.

McClelland could not discuss whether the specific software or hardware exists at HPD, but said citizens who follow the law should not be concerned. He said the program is not gathering data on private citizens who aren't breaking the law.

"We don't go out and target folks without a criminal complaint or (target) law abiding citizens who we have no probable cause that they've committed a crime," McClelland said.

Houston police bought Stingray technology at least one time, city council minutes from 2012 show.

"Members of the Houston Police Department follow the United States Constitution," McClelland said. "I believe, as police officers, we are the first protectors of the Constitution and we shouldn't be pushing the envelope into the gray areas where citizens have a problem of trusting the techniques and tactics that police officers are using."

OTHER STATES USE SOFTWARE

In addition to the Houston Police Department, the Fort Worth Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety have purchased similar software, according to media reports by the Dallas NBC affiliate and the Austin Chronicle.

Nineteen states including the District of Columbia use the technology, according to the ACLU. It's used by state or local law enforcement in Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Sing wishes all law enforcement agencies that use the technology would be open about how often they use it.

"The key is that the communities they serve need to have a right to know what is going on and how they are being policed," Sing said.

What do you think? Join the conversation in the comments section of this story.

Have something to share about this story or a tip? #TipJace by phone, email or text: jlarson@kprc.com or 713-635-9941. 

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