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Tacoma police face lawsuit on cell phone spy technology

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TACOMA, Wash. -- A new lawsuit seeks to bring a long-used spy tool out from the shadows at the Tacoma Police Department.

Stingrays are used to locate and track suspects, as well as monitor their communications, but the legal filing claims innocent people can end up as collateral damage in these cell phone sweeps.

The complaint was filed by four people who live in Tacoma. It follows years of frustration as people tried to learn how Tacoma police use this technology but were denied, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Whitney Brady and the ACLU are demanding that Tacoma police disclose how they use the spy technology, but so far the department has refused. Tacoma police also decline to speak with KOMO News because they don't comment on pending litigation.

"It affects everyone in the community," Brady said. "You never know when your phone is being compromised."

A stingray pretends to be a cell phone tower and calls out to all the devices in an area. By over-riding local cell phone towers, stingrays are capable of capturing voice conversations, emails and text messages from devices up to half a mile away.

"Conceivably we're talking about thousands of people's information being snooped up at the same time," said Jared Friend, who serves as the director of technology and liberty for the ACLU

Tacoma police may find the surveillance equipment invaluable to locate and track suspects, as well as monitor the content of their communications. But instead of explaining its use, the department has tried to conceal the very existence of its stingray and won't release public records requested by the ACLU.

"It really is the equivalent of cops beating down every door in an apartment building or a neighborhood," Friend said.

Brady is suing because he believes the people of Tacoma deserve to feel safe from crime, but they still have to be able to trust the local police.

"Their actions in regards to this device and technology has eroded the public trust," Brady said

The lawsuit demands that Tacoma police release documents on how it uses the technology. It also seeks attorney fees and fines for each day those records are withheld.

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