Be Warned (Or Get Excited) As Oakland Police Uses Cell Site Simulator

The city of Oakland is getting a surveillance upgrade.

New documents released to the public through some media reports reveal something interesting about the Oakland Police Department.

Law enforcement agencies have always used extra-judicial methods to spy on people and catch criminals.

Though it has to be said, how many times have unlawful methods helped law enforcement agencies actually catch criminals?

No one wants to know the answer to that question.

In any case, the Oakland police seems to be in a league of its own when it comes to using advanced technology.

What technology are we specifically talking about here?

We’re talking about deep access to people’s cell data.

Yes. It seems like law enforcement agencies have decided to take it upon themselves to keep up with modern hackers.

In fact, the situation with law enforcement agencies such as the Oakland police is better than what any hacker team would dream of having.

Because those “reports” have unearthed that the Oakland Police can use those devices without spending a dime.



Ask your friendly neighborhood local District Attorney’s office.

Sounds like too good to be true.

Well, in this case, unfortunately (for those who are concerned about their privacy) it is actually as good as it sounds.

Moreover, the Oakland police can also access private cell data on an individual basis.

If a law enforcement agent in the Oakland police department wants to look up a suspect, then he/she can.

With the help of the new device of course.

But we’re not far from the beginning.

The device enables law enforcement agencies to do lots of other stuff as well.

Other stuff like access cell data from not only individuals but also mass casualty events.

It is unclear how that would affect the privacy concerns of citizens or privacy advocates, but here it is anyway.

Is Everything Going Against Citizens As Far As Privacy Is Concerned?

The police have now got even more weapons to spy on people.

Believe it or not, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

However, evidence strongly suggests that law enforcement agencies along with government officials desperately want to spy on people.

They do that in a variety of ways and hence each citizen has to protect himself/herself with the help of some modern techniques.

Modern techniques such as the use of a VPN service.

But that’s a topic for another day.

Right now you need to know that the new devices cannot be used by law enforcement agencies for any/every purpose they like.

For example, the Oakland police department cannot use the device for crowd management.

So What’s All The Fuss About Then?

As mentioned earlier, reports from reliable sources such as the Cell Site Simulator Census suggest something is not right.

Mostly, the people over there have uncovered some more undisclosed records.

These public records, this time around, are related to the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.

So what do these documents reveal exactly?

Not something every privacy-conscious citizen would want to hear.

But it mostly depends on your own view of the world around you if you know what we mean.

The released documents contain a lot of information and some of it is not even worth mentioning because of their content.

Other documents, such as the Memorandum of Understanding, really do deserve a special mention.

The specific one we’re interested in is the one that is dated December 27th, 2016.

In other words, not-that-old documents.

This document (the aforementioned Memorandum of Understanding) grants the Oakland Police some special privileges.

Privileges like a five-year contract, at no cost, to use Alameda County District Attorney’s cell site simulator.

If the word cell site simulator scares you, then just relax.

We’ll explain the concept in a bit.

But the one thing to keep in mind is that the Oakland Police department can utilize and access the device at no cost.

Of course, it is the Oakland Police department that pays no cost.

The ultimate cost is borne by the people of Unites States of America in the form of taxes.

What Do The Documents Say Exactly?

Will law enforcement agents use their new power responsibly?

What they say isn’t as consequential and what they mean.

Let’s analyze some facts in order to have a broader view of the situation.

Firstly, the decision of allowing Oakland Police to use the device wasn’t made by any one individual or organization.

The decision was made after Oakland City Council unanimously approved it with a yes vote.

And hence the resolution was approved and then passed.

For readers who follow Oakland Police Department on a regular basis, Oakland Police Department had access to another device by the name of StingRay for over ten years.

But as hackers and other cyber criminals improved their methods and technologies, so did the Oakland Police Department.

No prizes for guessing how the Oakland Police Department improved their arsenal.


It was through the new device which enhances the Oakland Police Department’s monitoring capabilities.

The other reason why Oakland Police Department was allowed access to the new device was because StingRay got old fairly quickly.

The model became obsolete, in other words.

Part of the reason why it got out of date so quickly was because telephone companies dropped some network standards.

More specifically, network standards such as GSM 2G cell network and the like.

And hence law enforcement agencies retired StingRay back in 2013.

On the other hand, the newer cell site simulators are a different beast altogether.

Cell site simulators operate and work through 3G systems and can even coerce a smartphone to downgrade.

Downgrade a smartphone?

What can the Oakland Police Department possibly achieve with that?

Well, apparently the Oakland Police Department can coerce a 4G device to come down to 2G.

When that happens, the Oakland Police Department can easily access its data.

What about permissions then?

Not just yet. We’ll come to that in a bit.

Does The Oakland Police Department Really Need Such A Device?

Critics feel law enforcement agencies have too much power.

If we believe the reports on face value, then yes.

Remember when we mentioned that StingRay could be used to force a 4G device to come down to 2G?

Well, with the new cell site simulator, the Oakland Police Department doesn’t need to do that.

That also might explain why the Oakland Police Department wanted an upgrade in the first place.

Premium cell site simulators like Harris Corporations’ HailStorm can do that without breaking a sweat.

Moreover, thanks to some more “unearthed” documents, we also know that Alameda County law enforcement agencies didn’t do it overnight.

In fact, law enforcement agencies in Alameda County planned the upgrade move extensively since 2015.

Back then, the vote to upgrade then current facilities was passed thanks to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

If we go a little further back in 2013, then we see other law enforcement agencies making similar requests to Homeland Security.

The law enforcement we’re talking about are Fremont Police along with the Oakland Police Department and ACDA.

All of these law enforcement agencies applied for the relevant grant from Homeland Security Department in a joint effort.

Why Did It Take This Long For Law Enforcement Agencies To Seal The Deal?

By seal the deal, we mean, complete the upgrade purchase.

Back to the question then.

Why did it take years for the ACDA to complete the upgrade purchase?

Before digging further into that, another pertinent question arises.

Does anyone know what the IMSI catcher model, which the ACDA bought, was used for?

What was the exact purpose of the upgrade?

Right now, no one is sure about the answers to these questions.

What we know for sure right now is that the IMSI catcher model was the HailStorm one.

And there are strong reasons to believe such is the case.

If by chance you want a better understanding of the whole matter, you can send a public records request yourself.

Of course, loaning out IMSI catchers is nothing new.

Federal agencies have been doing that for ages now and a lot of people know this to be true.

But local law enforcement agencies?

This is definitely rare.

Local law enforcement agencies normally do not expressly state that these devices are up for grabs.

By up for grabs we mean, offering the new device to their fellow law enforcement agencies.

And not just any law enforcement agencies, we’re talking about law enforcement agencies in their own jurisdictions.

If there is any doubt in your mind about this fact then you should give a thorough read to the agenda report.

The agenda report clearly asserts the same to be the case.

Moreover, such offerings took place just thirty odd days after the elections.

What Does A Fellow Law Enforcement Agency have To Do To Get The Upgrade?

Nothing special.

In fact, they don’t have to do anything standard either.

All a fellow law enforcement agency has to do to get the upgrade is to agree to an MOU.

A similar one to the one signed by the law enforcement agency offering the upgrade device.

They can get the device, for free, too.

And for what reason?

Is there proper oversight over the whole process?

Again, no one really knows any details about the matter.

But the fact that a law enforcement agency has to just sign a paper and get the upgrade, demands further investigation.

The investigation might not be the right word here.

So let’s just say, that these revealed documents should be enough for anyone to demand closer oversight.

Oversight to exactly what?

It’s simple really.

Oversight over the borrowing of the upgraded technology at not only the state level but also the local level.

As mentioned earlier, law enforcement agencies have long used devices such as cell site simulators.

Forget the Oakland Police Department for a moment.

We know that California can easily be considered to be the region where the most cell site simulators are used.

Of course, they are all used by law enforcement agencies as far s we know.

Perhaps this is also the reason why California is also the region which is considered to be the hotbed of privacy activism.

So There Is No Oversight Over The Purchase And Use Process?

We wouldn’t go so far to say that there is absolutely no oversight over the use of these new devices.

As mentioned earlier in the article, California is considered to be a pretty active region as far as these devices are concerned.

And that has resulted in more legislation to be produced.

These legislations, at least in theory, are intended to curtail cellular surveillance.

Moreover, they also require law enforcement agencies to have warrants before carrying out extensive surveillance.

But that’s not all.

Current legislation also mandates that every law enforcement agency in California which procures these devices, such as IMSI catchers, must come up with some policies.

More specifically, it should create internet policies on its own which would regulate the device’s use.

At least this is something the currently adopted resolution is supposed to do.

In other words, it looks like the recently adopted resolution was made specifically for this purpose.

In fact, it also has indications of the use of strong language to curtail the device’s usage in very clear terms.

And the reason for that should be clear to anyone who follows news related to mass surveillance and snooping.

While such devices are great for law enforcement agencies, their use can be potentially abused.

Cell site simulators allow vast improvements over any previous such instruments and hence legislation must be there to protect citizens of the state and of the country.

Will The Recently Adopted Resolutions Have Any Meaningful Effect?

Probably yes.

But nothing can be ruled out.

The thing is, devices such as cell site simulators are really advanced.

Even if their use, and abuse, is curtailed, they are so intrusive that they can bypass any legislated limits.

However, as many other media reports have pointed out as well, there are policy planks that look sufficient.

To put it another way, many of components of the documents reveal that there are checks in place within the framework that are strong.

They are also clear in the sense that they set a definitive benchmark for and against the use of such devices.

What we can say right now that all of this means that law enforcement agencies all over the nation should pay attention to these policy points.

Is There Some Good News On Part Of The Oakland Police Department?

There certainly is.

It turns out, the Oakland Police Department actually agreed to some of the conditions that have been set by current legislation.

They have given the green light to limit the use of the new device, cell site sim, to operations such as search and rescue.

The only other place where the Oakland Police Department will use the device is when they are arresting fugitives.

Which sounds reasonable from all angles.

Most of all, it sets a clear method to use the upgraded device.

If the Oakland Police Department does not observe the limits and other directives, they could be held accountable.

Which is always great.


Zohair A. Zohair is currently a content crafter at Security Gladiators and has been involved in the technology industry for more than a decade. He is an engineer by training and, naturally, likes to help people solve their tech related problems. When he is not writing, he can usually be found practicing his free-kicks in the ground beside his house.
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