Police officials in Anchorage announced Wednesday that they purchased a controversial piece of surveillance equipment used to track cell phones years ago, though used it minimally before discontinuing it altogether last year because the technology was out of date.
Speaking during a public safety committee meeting, Deputy Chief Garry Gilliam told members of the Anchorage Assembly and public that the KingFish device, which can locate criminal suspects by mimicking a cell phone tower, was purchased in 2009. But he said rumors that the equipment let officials listen to phone calls and read text messages are inaccurate, and compared its capabilities to the commonly used app “Find My Phone.”
According to a purchasing request from APD approved on July 21, 2009, the assembly paid $119,200 for a KingFish model described as highly portable, but incapable of eavesdropping on active conversations.
“This is funded by a Homeland Security Grant,” explained then-Chief Rob Huen to the Assembly at the time. “It provides a capability of tracking suspect’s cell phone and additionally the ability to interrupt specific signals.”
Huen also described a two-part system obtaining a warrant to access the location of a suspect’s phone, then another to search the specific building or car where that phone might be located.
Gilliam said APD followed it’s internal policy of obtaining warrants before using the KingFish in all but one instance, which involved a missing person. He estimated the total number of times police used the device was “about a dozen.”
Municipal Attorney Bill Falsey said the information is coming out as a response to a records request by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, and a lack of clarity about how the KingFish was actually used.
Nationally, the ACLU has pushed law enforcement agencies to be transparent about using devices like this, nicknamed “stringrays.” They say the equipment raises concerns about privacy because it can potentially collect large amounts of data from bystanders and citizens, and is generally subject to minimal, if any, public review.
Falsey said the administration will be releasing detailed documents in the near future, but can’t yet provide an estimate of when that will be.