click to enlarge Oakland Police Deputy Chief Darren Allison addresses the Privacy Commission.

Oakland Police Deputy Chief Darren Allison addresses the Privacy Commission.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Privacy Commissioners Question Oakland Police About Capabilities of Cell Phone Surveillance Device

By Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Oct 7, 2016 at 6:56 AM

Oakland's privacy commissioners continue to raise questions about the capabilities of a powerful cell phone surveillance device the police hope to begin using before the end of the year.

The device is called a Hailstorm, and according to user manuals and other materials recently leaked to the media and civil liberties groups, its capable of imitating a cell phone tower to sweep up everything from a phone's unique identifying information and location, to the content of text messages and phone conversations. Privacy advocates worry it could be used by the police in a dragnet fashion during protests or sporting events to identify and track large groups, or that the police might use it to spy on people's communications without a wiretap order.

The Oakland police say they only want to use the device to identify the locations of specific cell phones, and only while pursuing a fugitive or during a "mass casualty" incident like an earthquake or terrorist attack. Oakland police officials also say they will always get a warrant to use the Hailstorm.

Deputy Chief Darren Allison and Tim Birch, OPD's head of research and policy, told the commissioners at a previous meeting the Hailstorm the Oakland police will be using doesn't have the ability to do anything other than locate specific phones and determine their signal strength and approximate location. According to Allison, the device was pre-set by the manufacturer, Harris Corporation, to only have limited capabilities.

But members of the city's newly formed Privacy Advisory Commission expressed concerns at last night's meeting that the device is capable of intercepting the contents of communications and other more sensitive information.

"When I hear the device can't do this, or it can't do that, I'm skeptical," said commissioner Robert Oliver during the meeting. "What I know from my own research is that the device could tell you the temperature of my behind in this chair, so when you say it can't do something, that doesn't sit well with me."

Privacy commission chair Brian Hofer noted that recently leaked documents written by Harris Corporation, the manufacturer of the Hailstorm, show that the ability to intercept the content of communications is built into the device. All that could be missing from the model acquired by the District Attorney and OPD is a software license to turn on the feature.

"These manuals made for law enforcement talk about interception," said Hofer. "I'm not confident that content interception wasn't disabled."

"We have no interest in using it for those purposes," Birch said in response to the possibility the Hailstorm OPD will have access to might be capable of intercepting content.

But when asked what software the Hailstorm will run on, Allison was unable to answer. And OPD staff didn't respond when asked by commissioner Said Karamooz as to whether the commissioners could be shown a demonstration of the Hailstorm to verify whether it is capable of spying on communications. 

Mike Katz-Lacabe, a surveillance technology researcher, told the commissioners that the Hailstorm's hardware is capable of intercepting the contents of communications.

"It's the software that matters," said Katz-Lacabe, adding that the DA has also purchased amplifiers to extend the device's range. "It will be operational before the end of October," he said about the DA's plans.

The commission ended up asking OPD to change wording in the privacy policy being drafted for the Hailstorm so it doesn't imply the device isn't capable of intercepting communications, only that OPD won't use it for this purpose. The commissioners asked that the word "cannot" be changed to "shall not" throughout the document.

The use policy for the Hailstorm is expected to return to the Privacy Commission at a special meeting in two weeks.

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