The Boston Police Department (BPD) has recently been found to have used seized money to finance “stingray” technology that tracks citizens and their whereabouts. First reported by ProPublica on December 17, 2021, the news has spread throughout the city and raised concern as to how much budgetary power the BPD should be given. There have been movements for years to transfer money seized from criminal cases to statewide funds, as the public is left unknowing of the actions taken with these newfound dollars. This groundbreaking story furthers the movement toward financial transparency and spotlights the invasive actions of our city’s police department.
In 2019, the BPD began deploying its “stingray” technology. This briefcase-sized equipment is used by law enforcement around the world to undermine the protective technology within everyone’s phone. Acting as a fake cell tower, the device provides a decoy connection to nearby phones in exchange for crucial information as specific as what hotel room you are in. While this technology may help the police find a missing person or suspect, it also taps into the daily lives of innocent, everyday citizens.
Currently, the Boston Police have increased their surveillance arsenal. It has been discovered that the BPD spent $627,000 on the “stingray” system that they have recently implemented. This purchase was strictly made using civil asset forfeiture. In other words, any money or asset used to commit a crime is placed in a slush fund that can be used in any way. While the initial budget of the BPD is scrutinized by the Boston City Council, this slush fund does not need to be monitored. In fact, the only observance of these acquisitions was a confirmation of the funds by the city’s Procurement Department. This lackluster policy that overlooks the actual spending of these funds allows the BPD to freely purchase technology such as the “stingray.”
“[It’s] extremely invasive,” said Massachusetts ACLU member, Kate Crockford. Crockford, as part of the American Civil Liberties Union, heads the Technology for Liberty program that fights for civilian privacy and secrecy from the US government. Living a lifetime of hypocrisy, law enforcement has been “extremely secretive about their acquisition and use of this particular kind of technology,” Crockford says. A system so concerned with finding the truth and obtaining justice is reluctant to reveal its own actions.
It has been reported that since 2014, federal law enforcement groups have spent upwards of $95 million on these cell-site simulator devices. Further, the ACLU claimed that 75 local and state police departments housed this same technology. Law enforcement has spent millions upon millions of dollars on this equipment that only amplifies the invasive power of the police. A clear abuse of authority, inconspicuously implementing this technology implies that there is some malicious intent behind it all.
Because of this, one would believe that transparency of the department’s actions and purchases is a necessary move in the right direction. For years, members of Congress have advocated for bills that require reports of spending and warrants for the use of the “stingray.”
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon sponsored the Cell-Site Simulator Warrant Act of 2021. This bill would require warrants when using cell-site simulators as well as yearly reports of its use. Wyden claims that “Cell site simulators have existed in a kind of legal no man's land for far too long,” and that this legislation will finally bring about “clear, transparent rules for when the government can use these invasive surveillance devices.”
While the bill is still in congress, other forms of regulatory legislation have been denied specifically within Massachusetts. In 2019, two electronic privacy bills were brought forth in the Massachusetts legislature. Both were shot down. The Massachusetts Supreme Court, however, ruled that this form of surveillance falls under the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, a warrant is necessary unless in an emergency case.
Before this groundbreaking ruling, Boston Police never obtained a single warrant from 2009-2016. Seven years of claiming emergency circumstances allowed them to continually implement invasive procedures that inadvertently tapped into the daily lives of innocent citizens. Since then, 42% of instances have still claimed emergency status and undermined the legal process to obtain a warrant.
Perhaps sanctimoniously claiming some sort of moral high ground, the BPD’s maneuvers around the legal process demonstrate the growing need for transparency. While the BPD wants to see everything we civilians are doing, they are unwilling to report how they obtain their funds and how they are spent. It is now more pertinent than ever to call out the police and their wrongdoings to ensure that we can become knowledgeable of their behaviors.
City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo is furthering this movement by co-sponsoring an ordinance that will require the BPD to receive approval for any new surveillance purchase. Now, administrators within the police department use their own discretion and choose what they wish to buy.
Concurrently, a 2018 law mandated that government offices report their procurement funds and how they spend them. While this has helped achieve transparency within the District Attorney’s office, Massachusetts police departments did not feel this measure to be necessary. Only two of about 350 police departments within the state filed any sort of report.
Jay Livingstone, one of the authors of the bill, did not even know of this lack of reporting. “It is incredibly disappointing to learn that police departments have just decided not to provide any information to the public,” he said.
Now, it seems, the only viable solution to this issue is to abolish slush funds in general. If we cannot trust our government departments to use this money for good and be upfront about it, then we should not give them this privilege. Massachusetts legislators have called for a direct transfer to the statewide budget, which will effectively find a way to support the ones who are the most in need.
“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,” Livingstone said. This abuse of power showcases the clear focus of our legal departments. They care much more about tapping phones and invading privacy than they do helping the less fortunate and providing equality and care for each and every citizen.
While the Boston Police now claims they will more diligently report and disclose their expenditures, much more is needed to put a stop to these reckless practices. There is still no mandated expense form that the department must fill out. Instead, they can continually undermine their authorities and constituents by secretly implementing these invasive practices.