The New Jersey State Police have spent at least $850,000 in recent years on a technology that allows troopers to track cell phone use without phone owners knowing, according to documents provided NBC10.
The taxpayer money was paid to a Florida-based company called the Harris Corp., according to heavily redacted documents obtained through a right-to-know request. The request was originally sent in December 2016.
NBC10 asked for all state police documents pertaining to the Harris Corp., which is the maker of a device called a Stingray.
The technology behind the Stingray, which is known as a "cell site simulator," mimics a cell tower to attract nearby phone signals. It then gathers identifying information and locations about the cell phones.
The New Jersey state police did not respond to requests to discuss their use of the technology, and the more than 100 pages of invoices and other documents were heavily redacted to hide how troopers use the devices. But one reference to the Harris Corp. was not redacted, nor were expenditures on the invoices.
Many law enforcement agencies across the country use the Stingray technology, and open government advocates have argued in recent years for the agencies to become more transparent about how cell site simulators are used in investigations.
An official with the ACLU of New Jersey described the device as "mass surveillance technology."
Jeanne LoCicero, the group's deputy legal director, is very familiar with the redactions associated with the Harris Corp. and the Stingray device. She said the ACLU of New Jersey asked for the same documents that NBC10 sought. The response from the state police was the same.
"The response to our OPRA request is really disappointing because it shed virtually no information on how Stingray technology is being used and New Jerseyans deserve to know," LoCicero said. "This is really invasive and sweeping search tools that were developed for the military and now they’re being used in New Jersey and public needs to know more."
LoCicero said that with the technology “the police can drive by and find out everybody who is in a building.”
In February, NBC10 first reported on a Delaware man's legal fight against the state police there over their use of cell site simulators. He's still awaiting a court resolution.
At the time, retired FBI agent J.J. Klaver said the reluctance by law enforcement agencies to divulge information about the technology is related to staying ahead of their targets.
"If people know how to avoid detection by it, then they’re going to take those step where they don’t want to be caught," Klaver said.
But LoCicero sees another side effect to an agency spending nearly $1 million without talking about what exactly it's used for.
"It is a lot of money, and with very little oversight," she said.