By Joel Kurth and Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
PONTIAC, Mich. (AP) – Oakland County commissioners asked no questions last March before unanimously approving a cellphone tracking device so powerful it was used by the military to fight terrorists.
Now, though, some privacy advocates question why one of the safest counties in Michigan needs the super-secretive Hailstorm device that is believed to be able to collect large amounts of cellphone data, including the locations of users, by masquerading as a cell tower, according to The Detroit News.
“I don’t like not knowing what it’s capable of,” said county Commissioner Jim Runestad, R-White Lake Township, who has met in recent weeks with sheriff’s officials about his concerns.
The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office is one of about two dozen forces nationwide – and the only one in Michigan – with the $170,000 machine. So little is known about Hailstorm that even national experts will only speculate about its capabilities. The technology from Florida-based defense contractor Harris Corp. is believed to be an upgrade of Stingray, a suitcase-sized contraption that is installed in cars and used to trick nearby phones into connecting with it and providing data to police.
The technology can track fugitives and find missing children, but privacy advocates said they worry because similar machines can collect data from innocent smartphone users.
“It’s all very secretive and information about (Stingray and Hailstorm) is tightly controlled, which makes it (difficult) to have a broad discussion about these tools,” said Alan Butler, a lawyer for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
Harris sells the device to police agencies and requires them to sign nondisclosure statements. Oakland County, like other agencies, obtained Hailstorm using money from a U.S. Homeland Security grant.1 2 next >>