Boston Police Bought Spy Tech With a Pot of Money Hidden From the Public

An anonymous reader quotes a report from ProPublica: Across the country, some law enforcement agencies have deployed controversial surveillance technology to track cellphone location and use. Critics say it threatens constitutional rights, and members of Congress have moved to restrain its use. Nonetheless, in 2019 the Boston Police Department bought the device known as a cell site simulator -- and tapped a hidden pot of money that kept the purchase out of the public eye. A WBUR investigation with ProPublica found elected officials and the public were largely kept in the dark when Boston police spent $627,000 on this equipment by dipping into money seized in connection with alleged crimes. Also known as a "stingray," the cell site simulator purchased by Boston police acts like a commercial cellphone tower, tricking nearby phones into connecting to it. Once the phones connect to the cell site simulator's decoy signal, the equipment secretly obtains location and other potentially identifying information. It can pinpoint someone's location down to a particular room of a hotel or house. While this briefcase-sized device can help locate a suspect or a missing person, it can also scoop up information from other phones in the vicinity, including yours. The Boston police bought its simulator device using money that is typically taken during drug investigations through what's called civil asset forfeiture. An August investigation by WBUR and ProPublica found that even if no criminal charges are brought, law enforcement almost always keeps the money and has few limitations on how it's spent. Some departments benefit from both state and federal civil asset forfeiture. The police chiefs in Massachusetts have discretion over the money, and the public has virtually no way of knowing how the funds are used. The Boston City Council reviews the BPD annual budget, scrutinizing proposed spending. But the surveillance equipment wasn't part of the budget. Because it was purchased with civil forfeiture funds, BPD was able to circumvent the council. According to an invoice obtained by WBUR, the only city review of the purchase -- which was made with federal forfeiture funds -- came from the Procurement Department, confirming that the funds were available. In fact, it was only after sifting through hundreds of documents received through public records requests that WBUR discovered BPD had bought the device from North Carolina-based Tactical Support Equipment Inc., which specializes in surveillance technology.

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