Feds scramble to keep transparency at bay

FBI Says All Public Records Requests For Stingray Documents Must Be Routed Through It


The FBI definitely does not want the nation’s law enforcement agencies to talk about their Stingray devices. Manufacturer Harris Corporation has aided and abetted this secrecy — first by misleading the FCC on the intended use of the devices (emergencies only) and then by claiming the FCC required law enforcement to sign non-disclosure agreements with the FBI, something the FCC has denied.

Other federal law enforcement agencies have also helped keep documentation on Stingray usage out of the public’s hands. Last year, the US Marshals stepped in to physically remove documents from the Sarasota (FL) police department to prevent them from being turned over to the ACLU in response to a FOIA request. The US Marshals Service has also ordered local law enforcement agencies to lie about their use of Stingray devices — not just in terms of FOIA requests but while presenting evidence in court.

Ars Technica has come across another document involving the FBI, Harris Corp. and lying. Originally obtained and published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the memo (written by the FBI) states that any open records requests for Stingray-related documents must be routed through the FBI first [pdf link]:

In the event that the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension receives a request pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (5 USC 552) or an equivalent state or local law, the civil or criminal discovery process, or other judicial, legislative, or administrative process, to disclose information concerning the Harris Corporation [REDACTED] the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will immediately notify the FBI of any such request telephonically and in writing in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to seek to prevent disclosure through appropriate channels.

As Cyrus Farivar points out, similar memos have very likely been sent out to other local law enforcement agencies. There’s a lot more in the very restrictive agreement, most of it blacked out. The letter from the FBI opens by making the dubious claim that releasing this information would render the agency unable to “protect the public from terrorism and other criminal activities.” This is the normal language of secrecy and it has very little to do with the public’s protection and everything to do with withholding responsive documents. The capabilities and technology behind Stingray devices are already public knowledge. Criminals and terrorists are already aware that cell phones, while useful, are also little pocket narcs that generate tons of data easily obtained with little more than a subpoena — or actively obtained with these devices. The “method and means” can’t be further compromised. All the FBI is doing is burying information about legally-dubious devices in common usage.

The FBI has dropped several restrictions on this particular law enforcement agency, including:

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehensions will not distribute, disseminate, or otherwise disclose any information concerning the [redacted] to the public, including to any non-law enforcement individuals or agencies.


The MBCA will not distribute, disseminate, or otherwise disclose any information concerning [redacted] provided to it to any other law enforcement or government agency without the prior written approval of the FBI.

The FBI also states that it will intervene in court proceedings to keep this information secret.

A copy of any court order in any proceeding in which the MBCA is a party directing disclosure of information concerning the Harris Corporation [redacted] will immediately be provided to the FBI in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to intervene to protect the equipment/technology and information from disclosure and potential compromise.

And who knows what the FBI is preventing here, but it would seem to be pretty expansive.

Not only is there very limited value in withholding this information, considering how much has been exposed despite these entities’ efforts, but there’s every indication that law enforcement agencies (with the FBI’s help) are sabotaging both accountability and the discovery process with these demands. Both are ethically unsound, and the latter borders on unconstitutional.