David vs. Goliath: Baby-faced millennial takes on Chicago Police Department

WGN Investigates
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Data pix.

Somewhere between age 14, when Freddy Martinez got his first computer and promptly took it apart, to now, a bashful, fidgety 28-year-old learned enough about technology to know more than most of us.

Suddenly, his knowledge has led him to face off with the Chicago Police Department….

What he’s almost single-handedly done is expose the CPD’s super-secret, military grade, cell phone tracking operation.

He and a few fellow protesters first noticed it a rally, ironically, demanding an end to illegal search and seizure. Then at another Black Lives Matter protest.

He and his group saw a police car and then noticed a suitcase type of thing on top of the car.  Martinez knew immediately it was a stingray.  First he thought it was an “ah ha” moment where they’d busted the police for illegal search and seizure.  Then Martinez thought, “wait, let’s back off” and find out more about what they’re doing and when.

So here he was, David, setting off to take on Goliath.  Martinez filed a freedom of information request. Anyone can – his asked the CPD to turn over its records on stingray.

His request begins with a simple "hello," but look closer. This young technical wizard goes deep.  It’s not your typical request. He's asking for intercepts, phone tracking codes and related cell phone data.

Anything designed to tap the vulnerabilities of a phone to catch a terrorist or drug dealer, could also pick up the texts or calls of innocents like him.  What are police telling the courts and judges in cases where they’ve used the stingray?

But all he heard from the police department was silence.  Every request was either ignored or rejected.

He got nothing from them.

So suddenly, a guy so leery of being tracked he’s not on Facebook, so introverted he’d rather be alone in a room testing the limits of his personal computer, thrusts himself into the spotlight to take CPD to court.  The Chicago Police Department has spent at least $120,000 to fight Freddy Martinez’s requests.  What that told Martinez is that this was being orchestrated from a national level.
Chicago private investigator Perry Myers knows all about stingray.  He says it’s especially helpful tracking throw away phones, bought cheaply, which bad guys can use and then discard.

So who makes this super-secret device so covertly coveted by law enforcement on every level?  A manufacturer with a sense of humor or sense of their regional headquarters.
Florida-based Harris Company has named all of its devices after fish.

Stingray, Kingfish and Amberjack.

But where there’s secrecy in the technology, there’s secrecy in the company that makes it.  When we called to get a comment -- we got options instead --  push  1 -- technical --push 2 -- sales -- push 3 -- training --  4 and 5,  but not a single human being.  So we left a message on all 5 lines asking about stingray. The next day someone called back and left their own message -- no comment.

And, we got a no comment from the Chicago police.

For his part, Freddy Martinez has made a little progress.
At first, he got 8 pages of documents from the Chicago police.
He’s now up to 200 pages.

… some of it blacked out with words like confidential – covert in nature – a non-disclosure agreement from the FBI. CPD is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for the equipment.

In fact, it’s all so secretive, in other cities, law enforcement has been forced to simply drop legitimate crime cases so as not to reveal the existence of stingray’s use.
For his part, Martinez, the young computer programmer, doesn’t relish being in the spotlight.  But he says somebody has to find out what they’re doing, so it might as well be him.

He’s filed a second suit against the Chicago police to learn more than what he’s been given, but he’s added another name to this lawsuit: Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

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