Michigan Police Buy Snooping Tools with Seized Cash

Published December 7, 2015

Public records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union reveal the Michigan State Police’s has used civil asset forfeiture revenues to purchase electronic surveillance equipment to monitor and track individuals’ locations and cell phone records.

Asset Seizures for Stingrays

In 2013, the Michigan State Police (MSP) used proceeds from assets seized from citizens believed to have committed crimes to purchase “surveillance and counter-surveillance equipment and supplies” from a Florida defense contractor business. MSP purchased the equipment to upgrade the police agency’s electronic surveillance arsenal, which was originally purchased in 2006 with counterterrorism grant money received from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Among MSP’s purchases were suitcase-sized electronic surveillance equipment called Stingrays, designed to trick cell phones into revealing private personal data, such as call histories and text message logs.

Melissa Ngo, a privacy and information policy consultant and former senior counsel and director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Identification and Surveillance Project, says Stingrays violate citizens’ privacy in many different ways.

“The Stingray and similar cellphone surveillance technologies are extremely invasive,” Ngo said. “They simulate a cellphone tower so that nearby mobile devices will connect to it and reveal their location, text messages, and other personal information. They can even record voice conversations. This is not directed toward one suspect’s cellphone: The surveillance technology [can] scoop up data on everyone within its range, so innocent people’s private information is gathered, too.”

‘Disturbing’ Secrecy

Ngo says law enforcement agencies often try to hide their mass invasions of privacy.

“Documents obtained through public records requests and lawsuits reveal that local police have hidden their use of this surveillance technology,” Ngo said. “The secrecy is disturbing. Stingray surveillance technology vacuums up data on any cellphone within its range, so innocent people’s data is gathered. We don’t know when they’re using this technology, what they’re doing with the personal data gathered from innocent people, [or] how long they’re keeping everyone’s private information.”

Bad Incentives

Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst with the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, says the state’s current civil asset forfeiture laws encourage bad behavior.

“One major problem with forfeiture in Michigan is that 100 percent of the proceeds go back to the local departments that seize the assets,” Skorup said. “That causes misaligned incentives for law enforcement and helps lead to situations where money may not be being spent efficiently or correctly.”

Calls for More Reforms

There are efforts in process to reform the state’s criminal justice laws and decrease these negative incentives, Skorup says.

“Michigan has passed a package of laws recently that allow more transparency for forfeited funds, but the next steps are to send the money to a general fund and require a conviction before assets can be transferred over to the state,” Skorup said.

Matt Hurley ([email protected]) writes from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Internet Info:

Brittany Hampton, “From Smartphones To Stingrays: Can The Fourth Amendment Keep Up With The Twenty-first Century,” University of Louisville Law Review: https://heartland.org/policy-documents/smartphones-stingrays-can-fourth-amendment-keep-twenty-first-century/