A little after midnight on November 28, 2014, hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters filled the streets of downtown Chicago. The demonstration was one of many that erupted in cities nationwide soon after a Missouri grand jury failed to indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer for the shooting death of Michael Brown that August. As the protesters marched, a police vehicle crept behind them. The black SUV emblazoned with “City of Chicago Emergency Management” appeared to have two 360-degree cameras sprouting from its roof and a command center in the back.
Whenever the vehicle drove by, protesters reported that their phones stopped working.
A week later, audio of a police radio dispatch from the protest was released online. In the recording, an officer alerts a department intelligence analyst about of one of the protest organizers. “One of the girls here… she’s been on her phone a lot,” the officer says. “You guys picking up any information? Where they’re going, possibly?” The analyst responds, “Yeah, we’re keeping an eye on it. We’ll let you know if we hear anything.” The leaked conversation and the cellphone disruptions led many activists to conclude that the police were eavesdropping on them. This story circulated widely in protest circles, but the Chicago Police Department never confirmed any such surveillance operations that night. Legally, listening in on private communications between citizens talking over mobile phones would require a Title III search warrant. But one thing is indisputable: The technology to snoop on nearby phones exists—and the Chicago Police Department has had it for over ten years.
And such spy gear is not limited to Chicago. Hundreds of documents obtained by CityLab from the country’s top fifty largest police departments over the last ten months reveal that similar cellphone surveillance devices have been quietly acquired by local authorities nationwide.