At least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Marshal Service, have secretly equipped officers with radar devices that allow them to effectively look through walls to see if anyone is inside.
USA Today reported that the practice is raising new concerns about the extent of government surveillance. The agencies began deploying the radar technology over two years ago. They gave little notice to the courts and no public disclosure of their usage.
Due to the fact that the Supreme Court has said officers cannot generally use high-tech sensors to reveal details about the inside of one’s house without a warrant, the issue has raised legal and privacy issues. However, federal officials are stating that the information is critical to keeping officers safe, especially if they need to storm into a building or have to rescue hostages.
Nonetheless, judges and advocates for privacy have expressed concern over the devices. They are concerned about the instances in which the radars can be used. They are especially disturbed by the fact that they have been used thus far without any public scrutiny.
“The idea that the government can send signals through the wall of your house to figure out what’s inside is problematic,” said Christopher Soghoian, the American Civil Liberties Union’s principal technologist. “Technologies that allow the police to look inside of a home are among the intrusive tools that police have.”
The radars operated like finely tuned motion detectors. They use radio waves to zero in on the slightest movements, even the movement of a person breathing, from a distance of more than 50 feet. The technology can detect whether anyone is inside of a house, where they are and whether they are moving.
The Marshals Service and others are using a device known as the Range-R. It looks like a sophisticated stud-finder. Its display shows whether it has detected movement on the other side of a wall. It can tell how far away the movement is but it does not show a picture of what’s happening inside. The Range-R’s maker, L-3 Communications, estimates it has sold about 200 devices to 50 law enforcement agencies. The radars cost of about $6,000 each.
The Marshals Service has faced criticism for concealing other types of surveillance tools as well. Last year, the ACLU acquired an e-mail from a Sarasota police sergeant asking officers from another department not divulge that they had received information from a cellphone-monitoring tool known as a Stingray.
“In the past, and at the request of the U.S. Marshals, the investigative means utilized to locate the suspect have not been revealed,” the Florida sergeant wrote, suggesting that officers instead state they had received assistance from “a confidential source.”
According to USA Today, William Sorukas, a former supervisor of the Marshals Service’s domestic investigations arm, said deputies are not instructed to conceal the agency’s high-tech tools, but they also know not to advertise them. “If you disclose a technology or a method or a source, you’re telling the bad guys along with everyone else,” he said.