LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Privacy advocates are questioning whether the Los Angeles Police Department’s alleged use of a controversial cellphone tracking technology is legal.

KNX 1070’s Claudia Peschiutta reports that police have lauded the effectiveness of the portable StingRay device in tracking down a suspect. However, critics are worried that other citizens’ data could be compromised in the process.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said his organization obtained documents that show the LAPD used the portable StingRay device 21 times out of a total of 155 cell phone searches over a four-month period in 2012.

“One of the concerns about it is that, although the police may be looking for a particular cell phone, they also are able to get the same information from other cell phones,” Scheer said. “It would appear that there has been some mission creep.”

The StingRay is one brand of a technology known as an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) locator, which allows any law enforcement or government agency to search large swaths of electronic data for a specific cell phone signal.

The device works by masquerading as a cell phone tower and connecting to any cell phone signal within range, which in turn provides data on dates, times and phone numbers of outgoing calls, as well as a phone’s GPS location.

Scheer said it remains unclear whether the LAPD has used the StingRay to bypass the process of getting a court order to obtain data from cell phone service providers.

Ann Linda Lye of the American Civil Liberties Union said because the StingRay and other IMSI devices can interfere with cell phone signals, using them can violate the Federal Communications Act.

“The Federal Communications Commission needs to grant authorization to local law enforcement agencies in order to operate StingRay devices,” Lye said. “We haven’t seen any documents that suggest that the LAPD has sought or obtained this kind of authorization from the FCC.”

The LAPD declined an interview request by Peschiutta and hasn’t confirmed the department’s alleged use of the StingRay.

Scheer said the First Amendment Coalition will submit additional requests for information from the department.

“The public needs to know more,” he said.

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