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California City Purchases Controversial Police Equipment

Councilors this week unanimously approved an agreement with KeyE Corporation for the Vallejo, Calif., Police Department to use a cellular site simulator, a device that masquerades as a cell tower.

by John Glidden, Times-Herald / March 26, 2020
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(TNS) — The Vallejo, Calif., City Council agreed Tuesday night to spend $766,018 on a controversial piece of equipment meant to track people through their cell phones.

Councilors unanimously approved an agreement with KeyE Corporation for the Vallejo Police Department to use a cellular site simulator, a device which masquerades as a cell tower.

All cell phones actively ping a cell tower allowing the user to text, call, or use their data. When deployed, a simulator acts as a cell tower, diverting cell signals to the simulator.

In a report to the council, police staff said the simulator would only capture international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) numbers and not telephone numbers. IMSI are unique 15-digit numbers assigned to a SIM card within a cell phone.

“This technology, for a short-staffed police department, is a force multiplier that will help us for crime reduction,” Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams said during the meeting.

Williams said the department borrowed a similar device last fall which resulted in the arrest of four homicide suspects over two months.

He further said a search warrant must be obtained from a judge before the simulator can be used.

However, a citizen’s group called Oakland Privacy, asked the council not to approve buying the simulator.

“Cell site simulators pose profound civil liberties issues. While we are not opposed to using the technology in limited circumstances, under warrant, to locate and apprehend those posing a significant risk to the community, the potential for abusing this powerful tool is high,” the group wrote in an email to councilors. “Cell site simulators have the ability to eavesdrop on calls and text messages, limited not by hardware but by software configuration, which can easily be modified.”

The group also said that the Alameda County District Attorney, the Oakland Police Department and the Fremont Police Department all shared one simulator, using it a combined eight times in three years.

“The combined populations of Oakland and Fremont alone are more than five times that of the city of Vallejo: it seems a waste of taxpayer funds to purchase equipment which will likely be used so infrequently,” they added in their letter.

The $766,018 contract includes purchase of a vehicle for $120,000, installation of the equipment in the vehicle, training, software updates, and a three-year warranty.

Williams said a usage log along with an annual report will be created, which will be publicly available on the city’s website.

Funds from the purchase will come from three different sources: About $400,000 from the city’s general fund, $204,000 from various law enforcement grants, and $162,000 from asset forfeiture.

©2020 Times-Herald (Vallejo, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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