Public records advocate Arthur West has filed a lawsuit against the city of Tacoma.
This time, West says he wants access to more information about the Tacoma Police Department’s use of a controversial piece of surveillance equipment called a cell site simulator, commonly known by the brand name Stingray.
The device masquerades as a cellphone tower with a strong signal. While police use the Stingray to track their target via his or her cellphone, other nearby devices are powerless to resist the Stingray’s call.
While the police might be seeking a felon with the Stingray, technology experts say the details of cellphone calls and texts — but not the actual content — can be scooped up by the police’s device. Police have said they do not retain data captured by the Stingray.
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In his December filing, though, West says the police’s device interferes with cellphone signals without a license from the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency that regulates the use of the airwaves.
West, an Olympia resident who says he travels frequently to Tacoma, wrote in his filing that the Tacoma Police Department’s use of the Stingray prevents him and others from calling 911 in an emergency.
He is requesting damages from the city for interfering with his cellphone contract and for invasion of privacy.
As with many of his other lawsuits against an array of public agencies, West is seeking damages from the city for withholding records he requested.
On Wednesday, West said other advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Media Justice, have pieced together information about the secretive technology. West would like to hear from TPD exactly what the device can and cannot do.
“All along, the city has been hiding exactly what equipment it has,” West said Wednesday. “It won’t disclose what it’s bought or what the nature of the equipment is. It makes it hard for citizens to figure out what they’re doing.”
TPD has refused to say what the device’s precise capabilities are. The agency has cited a nondisclosure agreement with the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
West’s most recent lawsuit is not to be confused with a similar one he filed in October 2015, which has since been consolidated with one filed by the Center for Open Policing in Seattle, again regarding Stingray records. The group has sued the city for not releasing an unredacted agreement with the FBI. West’s 2015 lawsuit seeks the nondisclosure agreement and a suite of documents related to the purchase of the device.
The FBI would neither confirm nor deny the existence of a nondisclosure agreement with the city of Tacoma in response to a News Tribune records request filed in 2014.
Of West’s lawsuit, Tacoma Police Department spokeswoman Loretta Cool said: “We don’t comment on pending lawsuits.”
A hearing for West’s most recent case is scheduled for April.
West and the Center for Open Policing are among an increasing number of groups across the country suing police departments for records and information about the device
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and several Tacoma residents sued the Tacoma Police Department last year over records it says the police hid about the Stingray.
Thursday, a man named Jerry Boyle filed a federal lawsuit challenging the city of Chicago’s use of Stingrays, allegedly without warrants or official guidance. The suit says the Chicago Police Department spent more than half a million dollars between 2010 and 2015 on the surveillance tech.
Boyle’s lawsuit says Chicago police have deployed the technology during Black Lives Matter protests.
“Government spying on its citizens without appropriate judicial oversight is inconsistent with the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution,” Boyle said in a news release.
After The News Tribunes coverage of cell site simulators in Tacoma, the governor signed a law that requires police to tell judges when they use the surveillance tech.