Nov 19, 2014 · 2 minutes

Baltimore prosecutors chose on Monday to withdraw evidence from an ongoing trial instead of revealing how the city's police department monitored a defendant's cell phone records. This means that a .45-caliber handgun and a cell phone will no longer be used as evidence in the trial, which is expected to continue despite this large set-back, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The case involves two young men accused of robbing a pizza deliveryman at gunpoint. One is said to have confessed to the crime; the other, who is on trial, was implicated via the cell phone records mentioned above. The second young man is said to have been in communication with the phone -- and thus the person, of course -- used to call the deliveryman who was robbed.

The officer asked to testify about how Baltimore police collected the cell phone records balked and claimed that a non-disclosure agreement with the Federal Bureau of Investigation wouldn't allow him to discuss the methodology. In perhaps the best response to a ludicrous claim made on the witness stand, Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams informed the officer that there's no non-disclosure agreement with the court and threatened to find him in contempt if he didn't testify.

The officer did claim that the data wasn't collected through the use of a stingray, which gathers information by tricking cell phones into thinking it's a nearby cell tower, though the defendant's attorney suspects he was lying. Stingrays have become increasingly controversial in the last year because they're able to intercept phone calls and text messages in addition to collecting a phone's location. It's also not clear how -- or if -- officers seek permission to use the devices.

Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Hanni Fakhoury explained the problem with the officer's unwillingness to describe the alternative method used to gather information to Ars Technica with the following statement:

"[It's] ridiculous that superiors, whether police or prosecutors, direct officers to evade answering questions about surveillance technology that is now widely known about. It's even more remarkable the prosecutors simply chose to not use the evidence rather that disclose details about it. That says a few things: first maybe we don’t really need the surveillance if the government can prove a criminal case without the evidence they gather from it (though that remains to be seen in this specific case). Second, that the technology must really be capable of some remarkable things if the government is so desperate to keep it under wraps."
While much attention has been paid to the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, cases like this suggest that the next controversy will be over just how much snooping police departments and other law enforcement agencies are doing, often without much oversight.

Whether it's using Stingrays to gather information, flying planes over large portions of the United States to collect data about the tens of thousands of phones underneath them, or using some other tool to gather information, it's clear that intelligence agencies aren't the only spies. Everyone with a badge is now able to gather more data, more secretly, than ever in history.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]