As Bay Area residents sheltered at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vallejo City Council assembled via teleconference last week to vote on the purchase of one of the most controversial pieces of surveillance equipment—a cell-site simulator. What’s worse is that the city council approved the purchase in violation of state law regulating the acquisition of such technology.
Any decision to acquire this technology must happen in broad daylight, not at a time when civic engagement faces the greatest barriers in modern history due to a global pandemic. EFF has submitted a letter to the Vallejo mayor and city council asking the city to suspend the purchase and hold a fresh hearing once the COVID-19 emergency has passed and state and local officials lift the shelter-at-home restrictions.
A cell-site simulator (also referred to as an IMSI catcher or “Stingray”) pretends to act as a cell tower in order to surveil and locate cellular devices that connect to it. After borrowing such a device from another agency, the Vallejo Police Department argued it needed its own, and proposed spending $766,000 on cell-site simulator devices from KeyW Corporation, along with a vehicle in which police would install it.
As EFF told the council, the privacy and civil liberties concerns around cell-site simulators “have triggered Congressional investigations, high-profile legal challenges, a Federal Communications Commission complaint, and an immense amount of critical media coverage.” To combat secrecy around cell-site simulators, the California legislature passed a law in 2015 that prohibits local government agencies from acquiring cell-site simulators without the local governing body approving a privacy and usage policy that “is consistent with respect for an individual’s privacy and civil liberties.” This policy needs to be available to the public, published online, and voted on during an open hearing.
As Oakland Privacy—a local ally in the Electronic Frontier Alliance—pointed out in its own letter, no such policy was presented or approved at the hearing. EFF further notes that the city council, however, did approve a non-disclosure agreement with the cell-site simulator seller, KeyW Corporation, that could hinder the public’s right to access information.
The Vallejo City Council must follow the law and put the cell-site simulator on the shelf.