Shemar Taylor was charged with robbing a pizza delivery driver at gunpoint. The police got a warrant to search his home and arrested him after learning that the cell phone used to order the pizza was located in his house. How the police tracked down the location of that cell phone is what Taylor’s attorney wanted to know.
The Baltimore police detective called to the stand in Taylor’s trial was evasive. “There’s equipment we would use that I’m not going to discuss,” he said. When Judge Barry Williams ordered him to discuss it, he still refused, insisting that his department had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI.
“You don’t have a nondisclosure agreement with the court,” replied the judge, threatening to hold the detective in contempt if he did not answer. And yet he refused again. In the end, rather than reveal the technology that had located Taylor’s cell phone to the court, prosecutors decided to withdraw the evidence, jeopardizing their case.
And don’t imagine that this courtroom scene was unique or even out of the ordinary these days. In fact, it was just one sign of a striking nationwide attempt to keep an invasive, constitutionally questionable technology from being scrutinized, whether by courts or communities.
The technology at issue is known as a “Stingray,” a brand name for what’s generically called a cell site simulator or IMSI catcher. By mimicking a cell phone tower, this device, developed for overseas battlefields, gets nearby cell phones to connect to it. It operates a bit like the children’s game Marco Polo. “Marco,” the cell-site simulator shouts out and every cell phone on that network in the vicinity replies, “Polo, and here’s my ID!”
Thanks to this call-and-response process, the Stingray knows both what cell phones are in the area and where they are. In other words, it gathers information not only about a specific suspect, but any bystanders in the area as well.
And they wouldn’t even need Pryzbylewski to break the code.
No peace, no justice.