CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Congress is talking about putting the brakes on a controversial tracking technology being used right here in Charlotte. On Your Side Investigates has been digging into the use of Stingrays for more than a year.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police, with the blessing of the FBI, had been using the technology with little, or no court oversight. That began to change in November after our reporting, along with work done by our news partners at The Charlotte Observer.
Congressman Darrell Issa calls the use of Stingrays, in communities across the country, an "abusive spy program." He wants it to stop. His proposal is part of a bill now being considered in the US House.
The use of Stingrays has been shrouded in secrecy.
The technology tricks cell phones into thinking the Stingray is the closest cell tower. The phone's signal goes to it. It allows police to track the location of the phone and more importantly the person holding it. WBTV has been told repeatedly it is used only to track wanted, dangerous suspects, nothing else.
Congressman Issa asserts Stingrays do much more.
In a prepared statement The California Republican says they have been used to not only track the phone, but also "access the phone's data, including text messages and e-mails."
"For years, the federal government has worked with state and local law enforcement agencies to spy on American citizens using the secretive Stingray program," the congressman said. "Just as concerning are the concerted efforts to keep this capability secret from Americans. The government has even gone so far as ending criminal prosecutions to avoid questions by judges and signing agreements with the makers of the devices to keep the public in the dark."
Civil Libertarians have been howling about the "Big Brother" potential, especially since they are often deployed without a warrant.
Here in Charlotte, CMPD instead got court orders, which were only released publicly after WBTV and The Charlotte Observer went to court seeking their release. But those orders are not warrants. They don't require reporting back to the court to say what was collected.
The Stingray's use has been so secretive, CMPD, like other departments had to sign strict non-disclosure agreements with the FBI.
WEB EXTRA: Read the Non-Disclosure Agreement here
After numerous requests, the document was recently provided to WBTV. It says CMPD cannot even disclose the "existence" of the device - not in "press releases, court documents or judicial hearings."
The document goes as far as to say CMPD will at the request of the FBI, dismiss a case rather than provide any information.
The FBI office here in Charlotte says it has never asked CMPD to drop a case.
And in a statement said the non-disclosure "should not be construed to prevent a law enforcement officer from disclosing to the court, or a prosecutor that this technology was used in a particular case."
Congressman Issa's amendment to end the Stingray program is in a house bill now. WBTV will track its progress for you.
The FBI says it has no comment on the amendment itself, saying the organization does not comment on pending legislation.
"To use this equipment, the FBI requires a search warrant based on probable cause signed by a neutral and detached magistrate," officials told WBTV. "With a couple of well recognized exceptions where courts have already held a search warrant is not required. Those exceptions include exigent circumstances, (i.e., kidnappings, missing children, or evidence of a criminal act that could lead to imminent death or serious bodily injury), or where the equipment is being used to locate a fugitive."
"The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department respects the constitutional rights of all of our citizens, including those who are involved in criminal activity," a CMPD official said Thursday. "By seeking court orders for any data of cell phones, we ensure that the rights of all citizens are protected and that we apply any use of technology within the parameters of the law. We do not capture texts or emails, nor do we store any persons data other than the targets for possible discovery purposes."