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Tucson Police’s Sweep of Cell Phone Data Challenged

Glenn Chapman/AFP/Getty Images

A lawsuit playing out in Tucson could determine how much people get to know about how police in the state use devices to track cell-phone users. Arizona Public Radio’s Howard Fischer explains.

A freelance reporter asked Tucson police for details on their use of a product called the StringRay. It fools cell phones into thinking it is a cell phone tower so the phone reports back, allowing police to track its location. Tucson produced some documents, including a copy of the contract with the manufacturer that says the city will not disclose any information about the device without the company’s consent. So the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit. Attorney Dan Pochoda said such any claim of confidentiality has no legal merit.

“We feel quite strongly that if this is accepted that it would eviscerate a good chunk of any public records law in any state if you allowed to not have to follow it and disclose,” Pochoda said.

City attorney Mike Rankin said he’s not arguing that non-disclosure agreement trumps public records laws. But, the city is saying that producing some of what is sought would not be in the “best interest of the state.” That is an exception allowed by law. But, Pochoda said the mere claim by itself does not give governments carte blanche to shield documents.

“That’s just not enough because that would just allow blanket exceptions that would engulf the public records law,” Pochoda said.

A hearing is set for October.

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