A Leaked Catalogue Reveals A Vast Array Of Military Spy Gear Offered To U.S. Police

From our partner
BY: Sam Biddle 09.01.16
Protests in Baltimore After Funeral Held For Baltimore Man Who Died While In Police Custody

Getty Image

A confidential, 120-page catalogue of spy equipment, originating from British defense firm Cobham and circulated to U.S. law enforcement, touts gear that can intercept wireless calls and text messages, locate people via their mobile phones, and jam cellular communications in a particular area.

The catalogue was obtained by The Intercept as part of a large trove of documents originating within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where spokesperson Molly Best confirmed Cobham wares have been purchased but did not provide further information. The document provides a rare look at the wide range of electronic surveillance tactics used by police and militaries in the U.S. and abroad, offering equipment ranging from black boxes that can monitor an entire town’s cellular signals to microphones hidden in lighters and cameras hidden in trashcans. Markings date it to 2014.

Cobham, recently cited among several major British firms exporting surveillance technology to oppressive regimes, has counted police in the United States among its clients, Cobham spokesperson Greg Caires confirmed. The company spun off its “Tactical Communications and Surveillance” business into “Domo Tactical Communications” earlier this year, presumably shifting many of those clients to the new subsidiary. Caires declined to comment further on the catalogue obtained by The Intercept or confirm its authenticity, but said it “looked authentic” to him.

“By design, these devices are indiscriminate and operate across a wide area where many people may be present,” said Richard Tynan, a technologist at Privacy International, of the gear in the Cobham catalogue. Such “indiscriminate surveillance systems that are not targeted in any way based on prior suspicion” are “the essence of mass surveillance,” he added.

The national controversy over military-grade spy gear trickling down to local police has largely focused on the “Stingray,” a single type of cellular spy box manufactured by a single company, Harris Corp. But the menu of options available to domestic law enforcement is enormous and poorly understood, mostly because of efforts by both manufacturers and their police clientele to suppress information about their functionality and use. What little we know about Stingrays has often been the result of hard-fought FOIA lawsuits or courtroom disclosures by the government. When the Wall Street Journal began reporting on the use of the Stingray in 2011, the FBI declined to comment on the grounds that even discussing the device’s existence could jeopardize its usefulness. The effort to pry details about the tool is ongoing; just this past April, the ACLU and EFF prevailed in a federal court case, getting the government to admit it used a Stingray in Wisconsin.