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Are Police Departments Tracking Cell Phone Calls in Georgia?

By Titus Falodun | 3/28/2014, 9:48 a.m.
Stingray cellphone tracker tower.

Editor's Note: Additional information included in this online copy, which does not appear in the paper, is due to the after-print deadline response of the Atlanta Police Department and Clayton County Police Department.

ATLANTA – Movies and hit cable shows, such as “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire” exposed the bane of law enforcement…disposable prepaid cellphones known as “burners.”

A burner is a commodity in the streets, with unused minutes, sans contracts, which allow criminals to make deals and exchange information. After a few days, this burner will be abandoned or destroyed, as a new one is picked up.

For police, tracking drug dealers, murderers, and fugitives becomes a labyrinth with burners.

But the Associated Press’s Jack Gillum recently reported the growing use of cell-tracking technology by police that is shifting the power back to the men and women in blue.

According to Gillum’s report, various police departments are using a tool known as Stingray (manufactured by Harris Corp.) to intercept phone calls or text messages, in order to find suspects.

Stingray is a portable suitcase-size device that mimics a cellphone tower. The device tricks all cellphones in an area into electronically identifying themselves, as private data is relayed to police rather than the nearest phone company’s tower.

Although, it is unclear what data is being captured.

“We can only track the cellphones of suspects with felony warrants,” a Fulton County Police Department officer told The Atlanta Voice, speaking under anonymity. “We use it to triangulate [the suspect].”

But Fulton County does not have this technology in their possession, according to the officer. Instead, the police department works in conjunction with federal officials to identify and apprehend known felons.

“We utilize federal agencies,” the officer said. “For example, if there is someone on the run, we send out an email to the feds. And they help us locate the fugitive.”

Typically, Fulton County police request assistance from the U.S. Marshals' fugitive squad via email. The response time on the emails sent is no more than 48 hours. After the request is received and approved, the federal agents take over in using cell-trackers to triangulate the location of the fugitive. The specifics on how the triangulation process is carried out remains a mystery, along with the tracking’s accuracy and statistics on its success rate.

Major Richard Lavallie supervises the Information Technology division for the Clayton County Police Department and he explained to The Atlanta Voice that the cell-tracking works much like submarines' sonar systems.

"What a sub would do is a send out a signal, which will report back where it's at," he said. "We call it 'pinging' a cellphone."

All cell-tracking by police must be approved by a judge, thus court-ordered. Major Lavallie mentioned the most recent use of cell-tracking by Clayton County police was during the Ayvani Perez kidnapping, when the 14-year-old was abducted last year, during an attempted robbery.

Clayton County police, sans themeans to apprehend the suspects at-large, requested use of the cell-tracking service, which was provided by the FBI.