Citizens Sue Vallejo, Calif., Over Cell Site Simulator

A group of citizens filed a lawsuit against Vallejo for breaking state law by authorizing the purchase of a cell site simulator. The device appears as a cell tower and diverts cell signals to the simulator.

by John Glidden, Times-Herald / June 26, 2020
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(TNS) — A citizen group has filed a lawsuit alleging the city of Vallejo violated state law when the city council authorized the purchase of a cell site simulator in March.

Oakland Privacy alleges Vallejo failed to approve a usage policy for the device, and the policy posted to city’s website days after the purchase is inadequate because “it allows use of the device without a warrant in the event of any threat of bodily injury without meeting the law’s requirement that the bodily injury be “serious,” and the policy does not indicate by job title the personnel authorized to use the device and access the data from it,” according to a news release from the group.

The group is asking the court to issue an injunction blocking the city’s purchase of the equipment until the council approves a usage and privacy policy which complies with state law.

The council unanimously agreed on March 24 to spend $766,018 with KeyW Corporation for the cellular site simulator, also known as a stingray. That cost includes a purchase of a vehicle and installation of the equipment inside the new vehicle.

“By violating state law, the City of Vallejo deprived the citizens of Vallejo of the ability to review and comment on the City’s cell site simulator policy, which itself was not in compliance with California state law,” said Mike Katz-Lacabe, research director for Oakland Privacy, in the same news release.

Vallejo spokeswoman Christina Lee issued a statement Wednesday night stating that the city attorney’s office was still evaluating the claim.

“However, the City disagrees with their position that the adoption of the City’s usage policy violates the law,” Lee told the Times-Herald. “In fact, it fully complies with state law. Unfortunately, that’s all we can comment on because it is an ongoing litigation matter.”

The device masquerades as a cell tower as 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.

Vallejo also signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with KeyW Corporation restricting information about the technical capabilities of the device, group officials said. They also said the NDA requires the corporation be notified prior to the fulfillment of a public records request about the device and its possible use.

“As a long time resident and business-owner, my experience is the City of Vallejo and the Vallejo Police Department regularly disregard the laws around transparency and civic engagement,” said plaintiff Dan Rubins in the same news release. “Now, during a severe health and economic crisis that is already causing a $12M budget shortfall, they want to spend almost $1M to buy a powerful and unnecessary surveillance device while they write its use policy in secret. Their actions flout transparency and procurement regulations that give people a forum to raise these issues that impact all of our civil liberties.”

City staff previously said funding for the equipment 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, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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