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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Oakland County Sheriff's Hailstorm Surveillance Device Raising Concerns

By: Timothy P. Flynn

Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe told the Oakland Press this week that the surveillance device known as Hailstorm, recently acquired by the Sheriff Department for over $350,000, is a legal, constitutionally-sound, legitimate law enforcement tool.  Undersheriff McCabe said specific deployments of the device are supported by particularized search warrants and sworn law enforcement affidavits.

Nevertheless, the surveillance device is giving some of our county legislators cause for concern.  And, of course, the ACLU is looking into law enforcement's use of the device across the nation, including here in Oakland County.

Here is how it works.  The device, about the size of a suitcase, can be installed in a sedan-sized patrol vehicle, and operates essentially like a cell phone tower.  It's sole function, however, is to track and capture the metadata from targeted cell phones.

One of the troubling aspects of this newly developed technology is the highly secretive nature exhibited by both the manufacturer and the purchasers of the device; everyone involved is hiding behind the Homeland Security Act when asked about the details of how this technology works.  According to the ars technica blog:
The Hailstorm is the latest in the line of mobile phone tracking tools that Harris Corp. is offering authorities. However, few details about it have trickled into the public domain. It can be purchased as a standalone unit or as an upgrade to the Stingray or Kingfish, which suggests that it has the same functionality as these devices but has been tweaked with new or more advanced capabilities. Procurement documents show that Harris Corp. has, in at least one case, recommended that authorities use the Hailstorm in conjunction with software made by Nebraska-based surveillance company Pen-Link. The Pen-Link software appears to enable authorities deploying the Hailstorm to directly communicate with cell phone carriers over an Internet connection, possibly to help coordinate the surveillance of targeted individuals.
In addition to the Oakland County Sheriff, the police forces of Baltimore, MD and Phoenix, AZ have also acquired Hailstorm units.  Undersheriff McCabe told the Oakland Press that the Oakland County Sheriff acquired the unit from a federal grant known as the Urban Area Security Initiative [a 9/11 related grant].

Undersheriff McCabe, in his interview with OP reporter John Turk, provided assurances that only specifically targeted individuals would have their cell phone data tracked, and that this targeted surveillance was supported via search warrant.  Oakland County Commissioner Jim Runestad [R-White Lake] and State Rep. Tom McMillin [R-Rochester Hills], however, are not sleeping well at night with the Sheriff's assurances.

We here at the Law Blogger, like legislators Runestad and McMillin, and the ACLU, are concerned about the privacy of law abiding citizens.  More and more, such citizens simply do not have any reasonable expectation of privacy once they plug into the digital sphere and begin to enter data, for whatever purpose.

Apparently, if you are going to avail yourself of the post-modern smorgasbord of digitized conveniences, the price for doing so is your privacy.

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