WRAL Investigates

Raleigh, Durham police using device that tracks cellphone data

Posted July 28, 2014

— Police in Raleigh and Durham are using a controversial tool to fight crime.

Commonly called Stingray, the small suitcase-sized technology acts like a cell tower and allows police to track cellphone data. Critics say the devices, which are also in use in Charlotte and Wilmington, invade people's privacy because they can collect information on the location and activity of cellphones.

"It is a very concerning technology because of its capability, but it's also concerning because it's so secretive," said Sarah Preston, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's North Carolina chapter.

Raleigh police have used Stingray for five years, police department spokesman Jim Sughrue said Monday, but he didn't provide any other information regarding use of the device.

"The departmental use of the technology complies with state and federal requirements, and the police attorney is routinely consulted when questions exist," Sughrue said.

Raleigh spent $126,000 on the system, while Durham spent more than $200,000. Federal grants are usually used to cover Stingray purchase costs.

With little or no oversight of Stingray use, Preston said she worries about implications on the general public, even if the surveillance is designed to target suspected criminals.

"They're scooping up all of this information about innocent people, and we don't know what they're doing about all that information that they're collecting," she said.

In the balance of security and privacy, some area residents said have no problem with the technology, while others see it as "Big Brother" checking up on their movements.

"If it helps them catch criminals, I'm fine with it," Lezley Kennison said.

"I think everyone has a right to their own privacy," Kevin Berry said.

Raleigh defense attorney Elliot Abrams said the Constitution requires police to obtain a warrant before delving into people's private lives.

"The question here is not whether they can use the technology. The question is whether they can use the technology without first going before a judge," Abrams said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that cellphones and other electronic devices, because of the breadth of personal data they can contain, can’t be searched as a matter of course when someone is arrested. Any search of electronics would require a separate warrant, the court said.

"Modern cellphones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet or a purse,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the ruling.

That case addressed only the rights of those who are already in police custody and didn't include the types of searches police do with the Stingray, although the issues are similar.

Abrams said he expects that issue, too, will ultimately have to be decided by the Supreme Court.


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  • raleighdurham Jul 29, 2014

    well this seems pretty straight forward. what they're doing is unconstitutional. stop.

  • jmcdow2792 Jul 29, 2014

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    I agree. I support the police and their efforts but some things are beyond what should be allowed.

  • traynor5583 Jul 29, 2014

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    you're absolutely correct. Although I'm doing nothing wrong, I definitely don't want ANYONE knowing my every move, PERIOD.

  • John Smythe Jul 29, 2014
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    Every weapon of the last 15 years, been bag guns, tazers, sound weapons, heat weapons, drones, spying, all of these are to hold you in place... The Analyst

    Neither me, nor anyone I know, has been shot with a bean bag, tazer, sound weapon, or drone. So tell me again how these things are "holding me in place"? If America is so horrible why not escape now? No one is restraining anyone from leaving. Countries that have actual police states do not premit you to leave.

  • I-Defy Jul 29, 2014

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    I know you like to ignore things about your favorite first family, because how could people you love so much be so bad, but Ill post a link to show you what Im talking about. I dont know why I bother since you will just pass them off as right wing dreck because they are not your trusted echo chamber sources

    basically attacking freedom of speech in your own home, but as we learned from the guy who owns the Clippers, freedom of speech, no matter how ignorant, isnt allowed in your own home anymore. How would you like to be punished for the things you said about Bush in your own home? Or is that different because youre a liberal? Where does it stop? 39% approvale rating shows Im not the only one tired of the Obamas

  • I-Defy Jul 29, 2014

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    remember when he promised to repeal it? How many broken promises is that now? His fluffers dont even bring that one up anymore

  • Justa Smith Jul 29, 2014
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    88ZOOLOO JUL 29, 9:24 A.M.

    lol. most of you commenting on here are ridiculous with extremely overblown senses of self worth!!! the police are watching me! the gov't is watching me!!! lol. ok here it is.... for all of you.... i am going to do something your parents should have, but obviously did not, done for you: you ARE NOT special. the police and the gov't could care less about collecting your cell phone data. rob some one, kill some one, kidnap some one, and maybe that will change.

    There is that element and yet this misses the point. Its not about the specialness of anyone or what they do. Its about the idea that it is a good thing if the people who have the authority and power to restrain any of us - and they can for at least awhile - have to work under strict limits in accessing our personal lives and have to follow certain procedures based on sound reasons.

  • twoods7 Jul 29, 2014

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    And it was Obama that abused that law to the Nth degree...

  • Brian Jenkins Jul 29, 2014

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    Why are you laughing? As a 14 year Air Force veteran the government is not buying drones to fly through your neighborhood, cell phone tracking devices, the NSA, NDAA, SIPA, PIPA, ungodly amounts of ammo , etc etc etc for "terrorists". Pay attention.

  • less_govt_is_better_govt Jul 29, 2014

    Remember this is wake county.

    The same county where the sheriff allows his deputies to falsify consent to search your home and allows his deputies to falsify words out of your mouth to obtain search warrants.

    Nothing is surprising coming from wake county home of big government in NC