Five Hampton Roads police agencies quietly stockpiling private phone records

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Hampton Roads, Va. – Police in Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Chesapeake and Suffolk have been quietly collecting phone data and sharing it with each other since 2012 with little oversight, according to a new investigation.

Known as the Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network, the secret database contains customer subscriber information; records about individual calls such as the numbers dialed, the time the calls were made and their duration; as well as the contents of seized mobile devices, according to The Center for Investigative Reporting. Wired magazine also published the Center’s story Monday morning.

Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network MOU

The effort is led in part by the Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Task Force, which is responsible for a “telephone analysis room” where the database is maintained.

The Virginia State Police told the Center through a spokeswoman that they opted not to join the phone record-sharing network, even though they are a member of the drug task force that helps oversee the database, and cited the state’s data practices act as the reason.

It is not known if the data collected stays with the task force or is further shared with other federal and state agencies outside of Hampton Roads.

Sgt. Jason Price of the Hampton Police Division told The Center for Investigative Reporting his agency “gathers, shares and retains information in accordance with local, state and federal law.” More specific answers “could jeopardize on-going and future investigations,” he wrote in an email to the Center.

Minimal public information about the sharing network exists, but it first made an appearance on the agendas of local government meetings, where it met no resistance. Elected city council members in Newport News and Chesapeake, for instance, passed resolutions approving the telephone data-sharing agreement without objection.

According to the memo establishing the information-sharing network, each participating city agrees to “share telephone intelligence information derived from any source with the (task force) including: subpoenaed telephone call detail records, subpoenaed telephone subscriber information, and seized mobile devices.” Participating agencies can query the system by phone or email. If a city chooses to withdraw from the agreement, any records it supplied to the database remain, according to the memo.

Details about the data collected from mobile phones and stored in the database are uncertain, but the data could be wide-ranging, because mobile users browse the Internet, exchange text messages and share contact lists, and technology available to police can extract much of this information from mobile devices, even if it’s hidden, deleted or password-protected.

Police departments involved in the sharing network are tight-lipped about the database’s contents, refusing to say whether the contents of seized phones includes contact lists and text messages.

Rob Poggenklass, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said he believed the database was disturbing and illegal under Virginia law.

… Poggenklass said the database runs afoul of a privacy law in Virginia known as the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act, designed to curb the overcollection and misuse of digital personal information by state and local agencies.

He points to an interpretation of that law issued last year by Virginia’s attorney general in reference to controversial automated license-plate readers that police departments nationwide have adopted enthusiastically in recent years.

Lori Crouch, Public Relations Manager for the City of Norfolk, released this statement:

The Norfolk Police Department has participated in the Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network since 2013.  All telephone information is gathered, stored and retained in accordance with local, state and federal law.  https://www.iir.com/WhatWeDo/Criminal_Justice_Training/28CFR/

The Hampton Police Department released the following statement in response to the report:

The Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network began in November, 2012. While there are other members, this system is overseen by the Peninsula Narcotics Task Force, which includes representatives of the Peninsula Association of Commonwealth Attorneys, Virginia State Police, Newport News Police Department, Hampton Police Division; meetings regularly include the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The system is very commonly used in policing throughout the U.S. for criminal intelligence, which is subject to federal guidelines contained in 28 CFR Part 23. The Hampton Police Division gathers, shares and retains information after obtaining a search warrant or court order in accordance with local, state and federal law. The Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act contains an exemption for personal information systems maintained by law enforcement that pertain to investigations and intelligence gathering related to criminal activity (VA Code §2.2-3802.7). The Network is covered by this exemption and is not contrary to the Attorney General’s opinion.

The City and Police Division do not comment on investigative techniques as to not jeopardize future or on-going investigations.

The Newport News Police Department released the following statement in response to this story:

The Newport News Police Department gathers, retains and shares information in accordance with local, state and federal law and does not comment on investigative information. Data Collection Networks, such as the Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network, are commonly used in policing throughout the U.S. for criminal intelligence and they are subject to federal guidelines.  The Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act contains an exemption for personal information systems maintained by law enforcement that pertain to investigations and intelligence gathering related to criminal activity. The Network is covered by this exemption and is not contrary to the referenced Attorney General’s opinion.

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