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2014 Topical Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

Cell-phone snooping by local law enforcement

 

About the Project

Governments’ increasing abilities to snoop into personal communications and movements is a significant national public policy issue that reaches beyond the country’s intelligence agencies. In 2013 and throughout 2014, USA TODAY, in partnership with Gannett journalists across the country, collaborated to investigate the methods used by local law enforcement agencies to snoop on our cell phone data, calls and texts.

The ongoing fight for public records and reporting clearly showed that the intelligence-gathering tools and tactics once limited to traditional spy agencies or federal authorities are becoming more available, and more widely used, by local police.

What we found, via the collection of public records from more than 125 communities in 33 states, is that the National Security Agency isn’t alone in collecting data – in bulk – from people’s cell phones. The ongoing investigation by USA TODAY and Gannett journalists uncovered records showing that dozens of local and state police agencies are scooping up bulk information about thousands of cell phone users at a time, whether they are targets of an investigation or not. In the latest reporting this year, Gannett journalists have uncovered police agencies’ attempts to hide the tactics from the public and even judges.

Records via open records requests under state and federal law as well as extensive web searches and traditional reporting showed that police capabilities are being fed by federal government funds, training and legal assistance. The investigation also revealed that dozens of police departments are spending several hundred thousand dollars each on a secret mobile device that acts as a fake cell tower and can tap into cell phone data in real time.

The findings have raised important privacy, civil rights and 4th Amendment concerns that are now being hashed out by courts and legislators. Privacy and civil rights advocates, and state and federal lawmakers, who worried the tactics could be used in most states without the kinds of checks and balances afforded when police obtain a search warrant, and the ultimate storage and use of the bulk data collected about so many people. Since the original report, three governors have signed new state laws requiring a warrant for police to gather bulk cellphone data and similar bills are working their way through at least a dozen additional state legislatures.

The biggest challenge was the ambitious nationwide effort to gather so much local data and records at one time, often from authorities determined to keep it all secret. The Data & Joint Investigations Editor at USA TODAY’s Network National News Desk coordinated a vast public records request, seeking records from police departments (and related finance entities) for more than 125 agencies across the United States, requiring understanding of dozens of varying state laws and public-records exemptions as well as differing cultures of openness among agencies’ leaders.

One of the unique capabilities the network brought to the project was being on the ground in those communities. Ultimately, more than 50 Gannett journalists were involved in filing open records requests, following up on those requests and challenging local sources when requests were denied or efforts to release data were stymied. In more than half the cases, the initial answer to our request for records was no – or some variation of no – but persistent follow-up by dogged journalists and corporate attorneys continues to pry loose records and new revelations.

Several state and local government finance entities declined, at first, to release basic documents such as purchase orders for cell phone surveillance equipment – often at the specific request of the contractor who makes the equipment, Harris Corp. of Florida. Repeated challenges led to the release of clearly public documents that – even after being released – would not be acknowledged by police agency leaders and other officials. We continue today obtaining additional records and filing follow-up reports on this important issue.

The story posed additional challenges because the tactics and equipment are so technically complicated. The journalists had to review of thousands of pages of records from a disparate array of sources: search warrants and court orders, testimony of police and FBI agents in appeals cases, patent and trademark documents, government bidding documents and even a sales manual for the mobile Stingray device, which was obtained from a source who got it a foreign trade-industry event. The research was transformed into an easy to follow digital graphic, broadly shared via social media to the point that it has become widely-referenced authority on the subject. We also built a motion-graphic for video reports.

Beyond the reporting, the other unique element was the coordinated reach and release of the story in USA TODAY and in almost 50 of Gannett’s local daily newspapers across the country, plus 17 of the company’s 20 local television stations. The vast majority of Gannett newspapers used both a national version of the story as well as specific, targeted local investigative findings, giving the findings even more impact. Likewise, most of our TV stations across the country aired the national TV package and a separate local version (on television and on their web sites).

Across the country, users of 100-plus Gannett web sites learned not only what was happening nationally, but also what their own local and state police departments are doing, information that most police agencies did not want them to know. The in-depth work is also brought together in one place in a curated page at usatoday.com, allowing readers to see the depth and breadth of the issue nationally and to learn of new developments as we report them.

In the end, this unique national story would not have been possible without the local reporting in each community. The reporting by Gannett’s network of journalists is helping drive the ongoing coast-to-coast discourse on our privacy and civil rights in this ever-changing digital age.

We believe the uniqueness of the effort, the national/local scope of the team project warrants consideration for an Online Journalism Award for topical reporting.