New Police Radars Can ‘See’ Inside Homes

from At least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies have secretly equipped
their officers with radar devices that allow them to effectively peer
through the walls of houses to see whether anyone is inside, a practice
raising new concerns about the extent of government surveillance.

agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, began
deploying the radar systems more than two years ago with little notice
to the courts and no public disclosure of when or how they would be
The technology raises legal and privacy issues because the U.S.
Supreme Court has said officers generally cannot use high-tech sensors
to tell them about the inside of a person’s house without first
obtaining a search warrant.

The radars work like finely tuned
motion detectors, using radio waves to zero in on movements as slight as
human breathing from a distance of more than 50 feet. They can detect
whether anyone is inside of a house, where they are and whether they are

Current and former federal officials say the information is critical
for keeping officers safe if they need to storm buildings or rescue
hostages. But privacy advocates and judges have nonetheless expressed
concern about the circumstances in which law enforcement agencies may be
using the radars — and the fact that they have so far done so without
public scrutiny.
“The idea that the government can send signals
through the wall of your house to figure out what’s inside is
said Christopher Soghoian, the American Civil Liberties
Union’s principal technologist. “Technologies that allow the police to
look inside of a home are among the most intrusive tools that police have.”
Agents’ use of the radars was largely unknown until December, when a federal appeals court in Denver said officers had used one
before they entered a house to arrest a man wanted for violating his
parole. The judges expressed alarm that agents had used the new
technology without a search warrant, warning that “the government’s
warrantless use of such a powerful tool to search inside homes poses
grave Fourth Amendment questions.”
By then, however, the
technology was hardly new. Federal contract records show the Marshals
Service began buying the radars in 2012, and has so far spent at least
$180,000 on them.
Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush
said officials are reviewing the court’s decision. 
He said the Marshals
Service “routinely pursues and arrests violent offenders based on
pre-established probable cause in arrest warrants” for serious crimes.
device the Marshals Service and others are using, known as the Range-R,
looks like a sophisticated stud-finder. Its display shows whether it
has detected movement on the other side of a wall and, if so, how far
away it is — but it does not show a picture of what’s happening inside.
The Range-R’s maker, L-3 Communications, estimates it has sold about 200
devices to 50 law enforcement agencies at a cost of about $6,000 each.
Other radar devices have far more advanced capabilities,
including three-dimensional displays of where people are located inside
a building, according to marketing materials from their manufacturers.
One is capable of being mounted on a drone.
And the Justice Department has funded research to develop systems that
can map the interiors of buildings and locate the people within them.
radars were first designed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. They
represent the latest example of battlefield technology finding its way
home to civilian policing and bringing complex legal questions with it.
concerns are especially thorny when it comes to technology that lets
the police determine what’s happening inside someone’s home. The Supreme
Court ruled in 2001
that the Constitution generally bars police from scanning the outside
of a house with a thermal camera unless they have a warrant, and
specifically noted that the rule would apply to radar-based systems that
were then being developed.
In 2013, the court limited police’s ability
to have a drug dog sniff the outside of homes. The core of the Fourth
Amendment, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, is “the right of a man to
retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable
governmental intrusion.”
Still, the radars appear to have drawn
little scrutiny from state or federal courts.
The federal appeals
court’s decision published last month was apparently the first by an
appellate court to reference the technology or its implications.
case began when a fugitive-hunting task force headed by the U.S.
Marshals Service tracked a man named Steven Denson, wanted for violating
his parole, to a house in Wichita. Before they forced the door open,
Deputy U.S. Marshal Josh Moff testified, he used a Range-R to detect that someone was inside.
Moff’s report made no mention of the radar; it said only that officers “developed reasonable suspicion that Denson was in the residence.”
arrested Denson for the parole violation and charged him with illegally
possessing two firearms they found inside. The agents had a warrant for
Denson’s arrest but did not have a search warrant. Denson’s lawyer
sought to have the guns charge thrown out, in part because the search
began with the warrantless use of the radar device.
Three judges on the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld
the search, and Denson’s conviction, on other grounds. Still, the
judges wrote, they had “little doubt that the radar device deployed here
will soon generate many questions for this court.”
But privacy
advocates said they see more immediate questions, including how judges
could be surprised by technology that has been in agents’ hands for at
least two years.
“The problem isn’t that the police have this. The issue
isn’t the technology; the issue is always about how you use it and what
the safeguards are,” said Hanni Fakhoury, a lawyer for the Electronic
Frontier Foundation.
The Marshals Service has faced criticism for concealing other surveillance tools. Last year, the ACLU obtained an
e-mail from a Sarasota, Fla., police sergeant asking officers from
another department not to reveal that they had received information from
a cellphone-monitoring tool known as a stingray. “In the past, and at
the request of the U.S. Marshals, the investigative means utilized to
locate the suspect have not been revealed,” he wrote, suggesting that
officers instead say they had received help from “a confidential
William Sorukas, a former supervisor of the Marshals
Service’s domestic investigations arm, said deputies are not instructed
to conceal the agency’s high-tech tools, but they also know not to
advertise them.
“If you disclose a technology or a method or a source,
you’re telling the bad guys along with everyone else,” he said.

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