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Pasadena, Calif., Police to Buy Cell Site Simulator

The Pasadena Police Department plans to use $1.2 million in asset forfeiture funds to purchase a cell site simulator that will help "trick" nearby mobile phones into sharing their data in real time.

(TNS) — The Pasadena Police Department will use $1.2 million in asset forfeiture funds to purchase a cell site simulator that will help "trick" nearby mobile phones into sharing their data in real time.

At their Jan. 22 meeting, the Pasadena City Council approved the PPD's cell site simulator policy and a $1.28 million contract with Tactical Support Equipment for the device, which is expected to be obtained and deployed within months.

Cell site simulators, sometimes known as Stingrays, act like typical cell phone towers but once a phone connects with the device, it allows law enforcement agencies to log the phone's unique identifying information (ISMI numbers), pinpoint its phone's location, and with additional software are able to collect the content of communications.

According to the department, Pasadena police already use the technology, borrowing it from partner organizations about 2 to 3 times per month, when available, but not having their own device available to the department leads to delays in investigations that keep violent offenders on the street.

Police say the device would primarily be deployed for missing persons investigations, homicides, attempted homicides, kidnappings, major drug trafficking, credible school threats, and credible threats to Rose Bowl events.

A search warrant is required for its use — except during "an exigent situation," which must be followed up by a search warrant submittal within 72 hours — and the system does not allow police access to the content of a target's communications. The system would not allow investigators to access, read, or listen to any communication, data, text messages, or emails from the target's cellular communication device.

According to Deputy Chief of Police Arthur Chute, any violation of the policy by PPD will be able to be disclosed, along with whether any discipline was taken, but no other details will be provided.

The City Council's approval came following months of resident pushback to the purchase in previous Community Police Oversight Commission and Public Safety Committee meetings last year. Residents, along with civil and digital rights groups such as the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation, warn that technology's use by police has lacked transparency and is ripe for abuse of privacy rights.

"They're monitoring themselves and we don't know if this will even be effective," Pasadena resident Allen Shay said.

In October, the city council tabled the purchase approval to ensure they were meeting new state laws regarding cell site simulator use. In December, the CPOC recommended changes to PPD's policy, including requiring the logging of its use and an annual report to the commission, which were approved by the council.

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