9News Investigators: Phishing in your phone - WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

9News Investigators: Phishing in your phone

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - If you have a cell phone, the government can tap into your life anytime they want without you ever knowing.

Cops across the country are buying special equipment to spy on you.

9News Investigators learned about an agency in the metro area that could be phishing in your phone.

On any given day, millions of people drive to their homes, work, and school with a cell phone in their vehicles.

Along the route, there are cell towers nearly everywhere they turn. Some are buried behind billboards, others are out in the open.

In some cases, what appears to be a cell phone tower could actually be much more, secret equipment, cell site simulators. The equipment can let law enforcement get into your phone without you ever knowing.

And, if they want, they can see your data including contacts, call lists, and text messages. It is all right at their fingertips.

"I think that's wrong. That's my personal business," Amber Boudreaux said.

"They can't, can they? They can? Without a search warrant," Theodore Knelt asked.

"They don't need a wiretap? I thought they had to do that. They're supposed to, right," Andrew Williamson asked.

"That sounds unconstitutional to me," Earl Simon said.

"I've gotten used to that kind of thing. It doesn't bother me anymore,” Randy McCoy said.

"It's a sign of the times, I guess," Scott Bradley said.

Whether you like it or not, it is happening.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said it is working to fight it and protect people's private information from the government.

The Executive Director for the ACLU in Louisiana, Marjorie Esman said, for more than a decade, law enforcement agencies around the country have been using the secret equipment to suck up huge amounts of information from cell phones of an unsuspecting public.

"It's happening all across the country including right here in Louisiana," Marjorie Esman said.

According to a map produced by the ACLU, law enforcement agencies in 15 states have cell site simulators, and 9News Investigators discovered, Louisiana makes the 16th state to join.

"They can find out who you called, when you called them, and how long you talked to them," Esman said.

Your cell phone is programmed to automatically connect to the strongest nearby cell tower. A device known as an International Mobile Subscriber Identity Catcher, or IMSI catcher, can pretend to be a legitimate cell phone tower and let the cops quickly search large numbers of cell phones in the area. It can sometimes be mounted in a police vehicle, or even in an airplane flying overhead.

"They essentially capture the phone records of everybody that person is in communication with," Esman said.

"(It's like) someone's been in my underwear drawer. You feel violated," Debbie Bradley said.

The IMSI catchers have different names. Some are, Kingfish, Stingray, Harpoon, and Hailstorm.

The 9news Investigators learned the Louisiana Attorney General's Office got a Kingfish back in 2011 from a grant it received through the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

According to documents obtained by The Investigators, the state used the grant money to purchase the Kingfish from The Harris Corporation, a company based in Florida. The price was $172,800.

In addition, according to travel expense reports, the Louisiana Attorney General's Office sent four of its people, all unidentified, to Florida to be trained to use the devices for "urban search and rescue."

The Investigators reached out to the Louisiana Attorney General's Office multiple times, over the phone and through email, but they did not want to talk about it. Our requests for an interview were denied. The Investigators also submitted a formal public records request for a document that would tell us whether or not the AG's office has signed a non-disclosure agreement with The Harris Corporation. By law, they had three days to respond. More than two weeks later, they responded saying they would not release any records.

"The AG's office is saying they are using this device, according to their records, for "urban search and rescue."

"What does that mean," 9News Investigator, Cheryl Mercedes, asked Esman of the ACLU.

"I don't know what that means, and I don't know in what way they would be using it for that purpose. It sounds to me like they are using it to spy on people," Esman responded.

Esman said counterterrorism is an excuse many law enforcement agencies around the country use to spy on the public.

"The fact is much of this domestic spying hasn't yielded any results in the way of counterterrorism protection," Esman said.

Many of the police departments around the country who have been buying the equipment are also signing non-disclosure agreements with The Harris Corporation, which prohibits law enforcement agencies from telling anyone about their use of the secret equipment.

The FBI supports those non-disclosure agreements. In April of last year, the FBI agent in charge of technical surveillance said, in Virginia, in a legal document, "Disclosing the existence of and the capabilities provided by cell site simulator equipment to the public would reveal sensitive technological capabilities possessed by the law enforcement community and may allow individuals who are the subject of the investigation to employ countermeasures to avoid detection."

"They get away with it by saying they may catch a terrorist, and therefore they have the right to spy on everyone," Esman said.

The Investigators asked Governor Bobby Jindal where he stood on the issue.

Jindal would not do an on camera interview, but said in a written statement, "In general, we're supportive of giving law enforcement agencies tools to hunt down and prosecute criminals, but it's important that they are not running roughshod over the privacy of individuals who are acting lawfully."

In an interview with reporters in London several weeks ago, Jindal said, "I have no problem with going aggressively after those suspected or those actually engaging in acts of terrorism or about to or supporting acts of terrorism but that's not an excuse to simply go after and collect data for the sake of having it on millions of Americans, innocent Americans."

Esman said there is not much the public can do to keep the government from tapping into their cell phones.

"There's not anything you can do besides not own a cell phone," Esman said.

Esman added, Congress would ultimately have to step in to stop the government from phishing in public cell phones.

Meantime, The First Amendment Coalition in San Diego, CA, filed a lawsuit, in December, against the San Diego Police Department after it denied a reporter's request for documents containing information about their possession and use of IMSI catchers.

Click HERE to read the lawsuit.

Click here to see the FBI's full deposition regarding government surveillance

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