Officials look to block Oakland police access to suspect cellphone data

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Oakland City council members are being asked to take the first step in approving a policy that would regulate surveillance technology that could intercept your cellphone signal and it has been used under the radar for years.

Police see it as a crime-fighting tool, but critics worry about spying.

The technology has been used by law enforcement agencies for years all over the country.

Oakland's Public Safety Commission is trying to put some restrictions and privacy protections on that because it is now required by state law.

The device commonly called a stingray mimics a cell tower by sending out the strongest signal, capturing and identifying all nearby cellphones, and even penetrating walls.

"With the right software these tools can also intercept content, they can listen to my phone, they can take text messages and see the pictures that I have," Oakland Privacy Commission spokesperson Brian Hofer said.

Hofer is a member of Oakland's Privacy Advisory Commission and helped draft a restricted use policy for the Oakland Police Department. He says since 2006, the department has had a stingray that city government wasn't even aware of.

In 2013, after an undercover officer was shot and wounded, the suspect's attorneys filed suit arguing their clients were illegally tracked down with a stingray. Now, a new state law says any law enforcement agency in California that wants to use cellphone tracking must have a public hearing and develop a privacy policy. "It's what I believe will be the gold standard in the U.S. or anywhere on the planet," Hofer said.

Under the proposal police must obtain a warrant and tell the court what they are looking for. They can only use the stingray to locate a phone, not for content interception.

The equipment can only be used to search for suspects, fugitives, missing persons and those in imminent danger and an annual report must document every case.

Still that isn't likely to be enough to quiet critics who feel they're being spied on during demonstrations and other first amendment activities.

"Certainly our civil liberties are the most important, but I have confidence through the administration, through the police that this is an action that will be monitored," Oakland City Councilman Noell Gallo said.

And council member Gallo will be voting in favor Tuesday.
Copyright © 2022 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.