Alameda County residents, you have a little more than a week to tell your Board of Supervisors how you feel about Sheriff Ahern’s proposed upgrade to phone surveillance technology shared by several law enforcement agencies in the county. The Board will consider the proposal on October 13.
IMSI catchers, also commonly referred to as “Stingrays”, are devices that masquerade as a legitimate cell phone tower, tricking phones nearby to connect to the device in order to track a phone's location in real time. While law enforcement says it uses them to locate suspects, they can sweep up the signals of people in a wide radius. But the current technology in use in Alameda County does not have 4G capabilities, and this week, the Board put the brakes on approving funding to upgrade to the system.
Currently, though it’s a little unclear because of the secrecy surrounding IMSI catcher technology (also commonly referred to as “Stingrays”), records indicate that the Alameda County District Attorneys office and the Oakland Police Department have the technology.  The DA’s at least was purchased with federal grant money from the Department of Homeland Security. This proposal would upgrade the existing technology “in partnership with” the DA and the Oakland and Fremont Police Departments.
It’s no secret that law enforcement agencies around the country are increasingly arming themselves with incredibly invasive surveillance technology, with the help of federal money. What is secret is what kind of technology each agency has and how they use it. And perhaps more than any other kind of technology we’ve seen adopted recently, when it comes to IMSI catchers, it’s clear that this secrecy is no accident.
That’s why we were concerned to see the County of Alameda considering an upgrade to its own technology with no public discussion. We sent a letter to the Board pointing out exactly why:
Law enforcement agencies across California have improperly denied public records act requests about the use of “Stingrays.”5 That governments would work with surveillance vendors to hide technology from both the general public and the judges charged with protecting our constitutional rights is truly disturbing. Sheriff Ahern is asking for approval to sign an agreement with this company. You should deny it.
Lawmakers are starting to question this secrecy. As we mention in the letter, California bill SB 741 would address some of these problems. SB 741 passed the California Senate and Assembly nearly unanimously, and it's currently awaiting a signature from the Governor. And Santa Clara, which recently considered purchasing an IMSI catcher:
ultimately decided against it. Santa Clara County Executive Jeffrey Smith says this was due to Harris’ overly restrictive contract terms, noting, “we couldn't get them to agree to even the most basic criteria we have in terms of being responsive to public records requests.”
The use of IMSI catcher technology in Alameda County has never been subject to the requisite open public discussion. But the Alameda County Board of Supervisors doesn’t need to look far to get an idea of how Alameda County residents feel about street level surveillance technologies:
As demonstrations against Urban Shield, activism around Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center, and packed public hearings about Sheriff Ahern’s purchase of a drone demonstrate, Alameda County residents are clearly concerned about the use of surveillance technology in their community.9 Sheriff Ahern ignored public sentiment against drones when he decided to circumvent your authority and use taxpayer dollars to purchase a drone in December.
In fact, many of the same activists who recently demonstrated against Urban Shield, as well as Brian Hofer of the Oakland Privacy Working Group, attended the September 29th meeting where the Board considered Ahern’s proposal.
That pressure at the meeting is why the Board postponed approval of the IMSI catcher upgrade for two weeks, in order to provide more time for public comment. The Board will consider the upgrade at its October 13 meeting. In the meantime, we hope Alameda County residents will take this opportunity to make their voices heard by contacting their supervisors (contact information below). You can get inspiration from EFF’s letter. Even the two-week postponement means the Board knows IMSI catchers aren’t trouble-free. Make sure they know exactly how much trouble they can be.
Contacting the Board of Supervisors via phone is best. However, the emails provided are for their legislative aides and can also be used to contact them and tell them what you think about IMSI catchers. Check the Board of Supervisors site to find your district if you’re not sure.
District 1, Supervisor Scott Haggerty Phone number:(510) 272-6691
District 2, Supervisor Richard Valle:
Phone number: (510) 272-6692
District 3, Supervisor Wilma Chan Phone number: (510)272-6693
District 4, Supervisor Nate Miley Phone number: (510)272-6694
District 5, Supervisor Keith Carson Phone number: (510)272-6695
 It’s clear from public records that the Oakland Police Department has a contract with IMSI catcher manufacturer Harris Corporation and uses its Stingray regularly for arrests. It's also clear that the District Attorney was awarded grant money to purchase IMSI catcher technology. In September of 2014, the DA’s office told ARS technica that the purchase hadn’t yet been fulfilled. What's unclear is if more equipment has been purchased since then, or if the agencies are sharing equipment. The Sheriff’s proposal states “The current equipment owned by the District Attorney’s Office is proprietary to the Harris Corporation.”
 In addition to the IMSI catcher upgrade, the board considered distribution of Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). UASI is the organization that coordinates disbursement federal homeland security grant money for the 9-county Bay Area.