By SCOTT SCHWEBKE | firstname.lastname@example.org | Orange County Register
PUBLISHED: November 5, 2018 at 12:43 pm | UPDATED: November 5, 2018 at 4:08 pm
A nonprofit organization is suing the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department to obtain search warrant records related to the agency’s use of a controversial cellphone tracking device.
San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which aims to guard civil liberties in the digital age, states in the 30-page suit filed on Oct. 23 in San Bernardino Superior Court that it is seeking records involving the Sheriff Department’s use of cell-site simulators, also known as StingRays. The simulators masquerade as cell-phone towers and can scoop up the location of all cellphones in a targeted area, including those from individuals not suspected of committing any crime, according to EFF.
The California Electronic Communications Privacy Act enacted in 2016 prevents any state law enforcement agency from obtaining electronic communication information without first obtaining a search warrant. The act also requires agencies to provide the California Department of Justice with information about warrants that don’t identify specific targets or if they want to delay notifying the target. The Department of Justice then is required to publish on its website information it receives from the agencies.
The lawsuit follows a Desert Sun analysis of Department of Justice records that found San Bernardino County law enforcement agencies were granted the most electronic search warrant digital records per capita in the state.
Specifically, the newspaper reported the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department executed 168 electronic search warrants in 2016, 211 in 2017 and more than 330 so far this year.
The county has used cell-site simulators at least 231 times in the past year, according to EFF.
In August, EFF filed a public records request with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department to obtain search warrant information for a half-dozen cell-site simulator searches made public by the Department of Justice.
The request sought specific case numbers associated with the warrants so EFF could determine through court records, such as affidavits, whether the warrants were justified.
“We are seeking search warrant records to explore first whether CalECPA is working and, second, whether law enforcement agencies are complying with the laws’ warrant and transparency requirements,” EFF Senior Investigative Researcher Dave Maass said in a statement.
“The law is only as good as counties like San Bernardino’s compliance with its rules, which are intended to protect the highly personal and intensely private information contained on Californians’ digital devices. CalECPA was meant to provide the public with a check on law enforcement’s use of this highly intrusive tool.”
San Bernardino County has denied EFF’s public records request, saying it is vague and overly broad. The records, they say, are investigative in nature and thus exempt from disclosure.
Cindy Bachman, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, declined to comment on the EFF suit because it involves “pending litigation.”