JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, a Jacksonville man is blowing the whistle on cell phone surveillance equipment the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office has that he says is hijacking our civil liberties.
"I am tired of our government using safety as a reason to trample our rights, period," said Michale Hoffman.
The self-proclaimed activist says he is outraged over equipment the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office has that can track your cell phone known as the Stingray and Kingfish systems.
"This device allows law enforcement or whoever has this device to access any cell phone data within its range, whatever that range may be. That includes your emails, your personal photos, your browsing history, your contacts, anything you do on that device," said Hoffman.
According to an analysis by technology website Ars Technica, the system can be used to intercept calls in real time but requires a software upgrade from the base model.
Thursday the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office provided Hoffman with documents which he requested under the Public Records Act.
"I wasn't expecting a response or a response to say look we don't have any information or if we did that's confidential or it's classified you can't have it. Woke up today, checked my email and I have the documents," said Hoffman.
Purchase orders show the city of Jacksonville bought a Stingray/Kingfish tracking system for cell phone frequencies from Florida-based Harris Corporation for nearly $200,000 dollars in 2007 for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, and the following year almost the same amount for another Stingray/Kingfish tracking system. Most of it was paid for with your federal tax dollars through a Department of Justice grant.
"Fourth of July weekend. We are celebrating our freedom and we are not free," Hoffman said.
Sheriff John Rutherford wrote in 2007: This project utilizes cellular tracking technology that can pinpoint a cell phone's physical location inside buildings or other areas inaccessible by a vehicle. Utilizing this cell phone surveillance equipment, JSO will be able to identify the location of suspects or victims with greater accuracy and in a short amount of time than our existing technology allows.
JSO released a statement to First Coast News: The equipment we have is obsolete and no longer in use. It hasn't been used for 5+ years. Beyond that, we don't comment tactically, but know that we follow the law on every case we pursue utilizing technology.
When FCN asked JSO if that means JSO is no longer using any type of cell phone tracking technology in Jacksonville Smith said "our statement stands on its own."
"The public needs to be aware. Until we get enough people on the same page of seeing the truth nothing is going to change. They are going to spin this and say it's about safety, it's good for us. We need to wake up. We are getting our liberties taken away every day for excuses. There is a way to achieve goals the say without trampling our rights," said Hoffman.
You may have seen Hoffman protesting around Jacksonville. He also runs a website, the name of which includes an expletive, promoting his views.
Jim Burke, a spokesman for Harris Corporation, told First Coast News his company does not comment on technology it may or may not provide to law enforcement. That he says is considered classified information.
Baylor Johnson, spokesperson for the ACLU of Florida has this to say about police use of Stingrays: Initially the domain of the NSA and other spying agencies, the use of cell site simulators – or "stingrays" – has trickled down to the state and even local level. It now appears that Florida is ground zero for this invasive surveillance technology.
Whenever police use any kind of surveillance device they must do so with a warrant and with probable cause. It's especially troubling when they fail to do so with a technology as invasive as a cell site simulator, and even more so when police try to hide the use of that technology from the public and the courts as we have seen happen elsewhere in Florida.
The ACLU of Florida will continue to investigate police use of stingray devices in Florida to ensure that, although surveillance technology seems to evolve more quickly than the law's ability to adapt to protect our privacy, Floridians are not being spied on by the law enforcement agencies tasked with keeping us safe.