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Boston Cops Fleece Citizens to Secretly Buy Controversial Spy Tech

by J.D. Schmidt

Boston police used money obtained via civil asset forfeiture to secretly purchase high-tech cell phone surveillance equipment, a new report claims. The exposé, published jointly by Pro Publica and WBUR, details how the Boston Police Department (“BPD”) used over $600,000 from a civil asset forfeiture “slush fund” to quietly purchase a sophisticated and highly invasive device capable of tracking and monitoring cell phone users’ communications. 

“Civil asset forfeiture” is a government euphemism for the Drug War practice of seizing money and property from people accusedof certain types of crimes. The practice, in which police shake down low level street dealers and high-rolling crime bosses alike—and folks suspected of playing those roles—is highly controversial, to say the least. At both the federal and local levels, assets seized by law enforcement agencies are rarely, if ever, returned—even if no charges are brought, much less a conviction secured. In many states, including Massachusetts, local law enforcement agencies are granted near-total free reign over assets seized in both state and federal investigations. 

In BPD’s case, WBUR and Pro Publica uncovered a payment of $627,000 for a high-tech surveillance device known as a cell site simulator. The Electronic Frontier Foundation describes cell site simulators as “devices that masquerade as legitimate cell-phone towers, tricking phones within a certain radius into connecting to the device rather than a tower.” Because the payment came from BPD’s civil asset forfeiture funds, the purchase of this sophisticated piece of spy tech was not reported to, or approved by, the Boston city council. 

Commonly known as “stingrays” after the brand name of a popular model, cell site simulators can be used to collect the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (“IMSI”) number and other identifying data from an individual cell phone. They can also pinpoint its location with a much higher degree of accuracy than information collected from cell phone service providers. Further, stingrays can collect data on calls made and the amount of time on each call, the content of unencrypted phone calls and text messages, and some types of data usage, such as websites visited. 

Along the way, stingrays sweep up the same types of data from any other phones in the vicinity of the targeted device. The ACLU and other civil liberties groups have long decried this incredibly invasive practice. In response to the ongoing controversy, state and federal legislators have tried to craft laws that provide oversight and privacy restrictions on law enforcement’s use of cell site simulators. So far, most of these efforts have failed. Two 2019 electronic privacy bills limiting stingray use and requiring cops to get warrants for it were killed in committee in the Massachusetts legislature. 

Ultimately, reigning in the cops’ secretive, high-tech spy games may require taking away their allowances. One Massachusetts legislator has proposed rerouting forfeiture money into the state’s general fund. WBUR and Pro Publica quote State Representative Jay Livingstone as saying, “Having these systems where police departments or DAs are nickel and diming some of the poorest people in the state to create this slush fund that they can use for whatever they want, it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

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