The use of Stingray devices has been controversial. The surveillance tool can be used to locate cell phones by mimicking phone towers, but their practical use shows severe racial disparities in multiple cities across the country, according to a new report.
Police departments in Milwaukee, Baltimore and Tallahassee have all been found to use Stingray tracking devices without warrants and particularly in low-income, minority neighborhoods, according to City Labs. The Stingray devices are often used in theft and robberies, while logistical issues surrounding these tools have some civil rights activists concerned.
The issues presented are twofold. First, a recent study of Stingray use found three large cities across the country used the devices to target areas in low-income neighborhoods with high minority populations. The other problem is that Stingrays are not used to find one single phone. While they may be used with the intention of finding a specific person, they collect location information from many phones within the area they’re used.
Milwaukee, Baltimore and Tallahassee are in three very different parts of the country, but all show interesting demographics. The median household income in all three cities is below the national average of $51,939 with Milwaukee’s $35,489, Tallahassee’s $39,407 and Baltimore’s $41,819, according to the US Census.
In addition, Baltimore is the only city with a majority African American population while they represent only 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population and 35 percent of Tallahassee’s.
Despite African Americans being the minority in two of the cities, police were found to use Stingrays disproportionately in specific communities. For example, 78 percent of trackable Stingray uses from 2007-14 were found to be in Census blocks where the median household income was lower than the city average, according to City Lab.
In addition, Tallahassee police were found to use the surveillance devices in predominantly non-white neighborhoods 53 percent of the time, despite those communities only representing 35 percent of the population.
In Milwaukee, Stingrays were used in areas with lower white populations regardless of income.
However, the city’s wealthiest and whitest populations saw only a few uses of Stingrays.
While Baltimore is a city with a black majority population of 63.7 percent, black communities were the target of Stingray operations 90 percent of the time. The issue is particularly pronounced in Baltimore where neighborhoods can be racially segregated but have similar incomes and crime levels.