At least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies have secretly equipped their officers with radar devices that allow them to effectively peer through the walls of houses to see whether anyone is inside, which is raising new privacy concerns.
Those agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, began quietly giving out the radar systems in 2012. The devices were first used overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq and there was little notice given to the courts and nothing was said about when or how they would be used.
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. He stated, “If you disclose a technology or a method or a source, you’re telling the bad guys along with everyone else.”
The technology raises legal and privacy issues because the U.S. Supreme Court has said officers generally cannot use high-tech sensors to tell them about the inside of a person’s house without first getting a search warrant.
The radars, known as Range-R, work like finely tuned motion detectors. They use radio waves to zero in on movements as slight as human breathing from a distance of more than 50 feet. They can detect whether anyone is inside of a house, where they are, whether they are moving, and how far away they are, but it does not show a picture of what’s happening inside.
The company that created Range-Rs, L-3 Communications, estimates that it has sold about 200 devices to 50 law enforcement agencies since 2012 for $6,000 each, according to USA Today. The U.S. Marshal Service has spent at least $180,000 on them so far.
While federal officials say the information is critical for keeping officers safe if they need to storm buildings or rescue hostages, privacy advocates and judges have still maintained their concern about the circumstances in which law enforcement agencies may be using the radars and the fact that they have so far done so without public scrutiny.
However, they have begun to get some scrutiny from the federal courts. Until December, no one really even knew these existed and were used, but a federal court date was held December 10th because the device was used without a warrant on a house in Wichita to help track down Steven Denson, who violated his parole, CBS explained.
Christopher Soghoian, the American Civil Liberties Union’s principal technologist, said,
“The idea that the government can send signals through the wall of your house to figure out what’s inside is problematic. Technologies that allow the police to look inside of a home are among the intrusive tools that police have.”
Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU and an expert on privacy issues, added,
“They clearly are useful for law enforcement. But just because they are useful doesn’t mean they should be unregulated by the law. If police wanted to enter my home to conduct search or make an arrest, it has always been clear they would have to get a warrant from a judge first because the home is the most private place we have. The rule should not be any different because they are using powerful radar gear instead of breaking down my door.”