SPRINGFIELD - They can hear you now and they probably could hear you eight years ago.
Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act appear to show that the Illinois State Police may have had access to cellphone eavesdropping equipment since 2008.
That year, the documents published online appear to show, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich authorized the Illinois State Police to quietly purchase cell phone surveillance equipment for over $250,000.
The documents, which cover a period between 2008 and 2012, were obtained and first published online last week by Scott Ainsile, a freelance “data pilgrim” based in the United Kingdom.
ACLU-IL told Illinois Review Tuesday that they and other sources are working to verify the accuracy of the documents published online.
"It appears that the ISP has had access to a cellphone surveillance system for years," Ed Yohnka of the ACLU said. "We weren't aware the State Police had that equipment until late last week when the documents appeared online."
"We have great reservations as to how the equipment is being used if they do have it," Yohnka said. "This equipment scoops up lots of information on innocent people, and without warrants being issued."
Among the documents is what appears to be a letter from Blagojevich's then-General Counsel William Quinlan to Larry Trent of the ISP, which specified the governor's agreement to quietly purchase the equipment from Harris Corporation without enduring the competitive bid process.
The letter published among the documents says "The Illinois State Police has issued a request for a Procurement Code exception in order to covertly purchase (dedacted) from Harris Corporation for conducting covert investigations. This exception is requested so that the Illinois State Police may purchase components directly from the vendor and decrease the possibility of sensitive information being disseminated inappropriately."
Harris Corporation of Melbourne Florida says they sell the surveilliance equipment only to government and law enforcement agencies.
The documents obtained show the Harris Corporation purchase:
And while the items purchased were redacted, a current Harris Corporation price list indicates similarity to Illinois' 2008 purchase that may have been what is known in the surveillance industry as a "Stingray":
The FOIA documents also appear to show that four special agents with the Illinois State Police were sent to the Harris Corporations headquarters in Melbourne Florida from November 9 through 19, 2008 for seven days of training on the ISP's newly-acquired cellphone surveillance equipment.
The expenditures were paid for by a Homeland Security Grant, the records show.
The Wall Street Journal recently did an expose on the equipment the ISP may have purchased:
A "Stingray" works by mimicking a cellphone tower, getting a phone to connect to it and measuring signals from the phone. It lets the stingray operator “ping,” or send a signal to, a phone and locate it as long as it is powered on, according to documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. The device has various uses, including helping police locate suspects and aiding search-and-rescue teams in finding people lost in remote areas or buried in rubble after an accident. ..
Stingrays are designed to locate a mobile phone even when it’s not being used to make a call. The Federal Bureau of Investigation considers the devices to be so critical that it has a policy of deleting the data gathered in their use, mainly to keep suspects in the dark about their capabilities, an FBI official told The Wall Street Journal in response to inquiries.
When the equipment pulls in cellphone information like a cell tower, police can use initial data from a tower dump to ask for another court order for more information, including addresses, billing records and logs of class, texts and locations.
The ACLU-IL told Illinois they were not aware of the ISP using cellphone surveilliance equipment as a source of evidence for prosecution in Illinois. However, they said, there is much more to learn about how the ISP has used the equipment if they did purchase it as the documents show.
"While the concern is about the NSA using covert equipment, the public should know that their state and local law enforcement may also be using this powerful technology," Yohka said.
The documents showing the 2008 purchase can be found HERE