Council asked to approve cell-site simulator usage and privacy policy

by John Glidden | Oct. 12, 2020

A privacy and usage policy regarding a controversial piece of technology will go before the Vallejo City Council on Tuesday.

The seven-person council will be asked to consider adopting the policy on use of a cellular-site simulator, also known as a stingray, two weeks after a Solano County judge issued a tentative ruling saying Vallejo breached its duty when the council approved the purchase of the technology before adopting a usage policy – as required by state law.

Financial records show the city bought the stingray, at the end of August, at the same time the city was defending itself in a lawsuit filed by Oakland Privacy.

The citizen group filed its lawsuit in June, asking the court to block the city’s purchase and use of the equipment until Vallejo adopted a privacy and usage policy.

All cell phones actively ping a cell tower allowing the user to call, text and use data. A stingray masquerades as a tower, causing all nearby cell phones to ping the device instead. Law enforcement is then able to obtain each phone’s unique IMSI number, which can be used to track the location of the phone.

On Aug. 26, Vallejo spent $766,000 with KeyW Corporation to buy the technology and the purchase of a vehicle, as approved by the council in March. The equipment will be installed in the vehicle to allow the technology to be mobile.

The financial records don’t mention the stingray or vehicle, just a generic description of “field equipment acquisition” and “misc. equipment” in the object description.

A bulk of the $766,000, more than $400,000, is funded from city’s general fund. With $203,990.41 coming from a supplemental law enforcement grant, $99,965.26 from capital outlay fund, and $62,047.40 from asset seizure.

Financial records show the city of Vallejo purchased the cell-site simulator. (John Glidden).

According to a March staff report, officials said the police department and city attorney’s office had “prepared and approved” a police department policy “which details the nature of the equipment, authorized users, privacy issues, approved uses of the system, mandated training for authorized users, and interagency cooperation for the usage of the system.”

Officials said following the purchase of the equipment the new police department policy would be issued. There was no mention of the council adopting a resolution or ordinance outlining the city’s privacy policy on usage of the device.

That same policy is now going before the council for approval on Tuesday.

Oakland Privacy was also critical of the suddenness of the policy going before the council after being told it would be on the council’s Oct. 27 meeting agenda, the group said in a message posted to its website.

“We’re pretty sure the sudden change was intended to minimize public comment, so it’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen,” they wrote.

When asked about this shift in the timetable, Vallejo spokeswoman Christina Lee said Tuesday’s agenda was “previously full, and then an item dropped off and a slot became available so they moved it up.”

It’s not known if the stingray has been used already. The city denied a public records request from JohnGlidden.com seeking to review records on how many times the equipment has been used.

The Vallejo City Council will meet at 7 p.m., Tuesday via teleconference.

Members of the public may provide public comments during the meeting via zoom (https://ZoomRegular.Cityofvallejo.net), or via phone, by dialing (669) 900­6833.

For additional instructions on how to speak during public comment, visit, http://www.cityofvallejo.net/publiccomment.

There are three different ways you can view this public meeting: Watch Vallejo local channel 28; stream from the city website: http://www.cityofvallejo.net/Streaming; join the Zoom webinar: https://ZoomRegular.Cityofvallejo.net.

Published by John Glidden

John Glidden is a freelance journalist reporting on the city of Vallejo. The native Vallejoan also covers the local school district, Vallejo elections, and public safety.

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