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Boston City Council Questions Police Use Of Secret Sting Ray Phone Tracking Equipment

BOSTON (CBS) - The Boston City Council's Committee on Government Accountability, Transparency and Accessibility met Tuesday to learn about secret phone tracking equipment police bought using money that's not part of the public budget.

"We're here today because the public is in need of answers," said City Councilor Julia Mejia. "This era of secrecy has to end."

It's called a Sting Ray, about the size of a briefcase. It works the same way a cell phone tower does, picking up signals from nearby phones. But in this case, the Sting Ray gives police information they can use to track someone's location without them ever knowing.

"That's really invasive. It's like, you're not doing anything suspicious or anything, but you still have a right to your privacy," said Amanda Christodoulou, a student who lives in Boston.

"Other countries and other entities have been tracking our phones for a while now, so I feel like the police is the least of our worries in tracking that," said John Goolsby, who also lives in Boston.

The public did not know about the $627,000 purchase Boston Police made three years ago because it was paid for with money they seized in criminal investigations.

"This kind of thing should not be happening in secret," said Kade Crockford with the ACLU of Massachusetts.

But Boston Police say it helped track down a suspect who threatened former Mayor Marty Walsh a few years ago, and also victims of human trafficking.

"In many of those instances, this technology saved lives. It averted harm, trauma to the community," said Felipe Colon, Chief of Boston Police Investigative Services.

There is a new law in Boston that would prevent this type of secret purchase from happening again. The Surveillance Oversight Ordinance requires police to get special approval from the Boston City Council before buying any spy equipment in the future.

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