Local police defend use of phone records program

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – Several Hampton Roads police departments defended a database they use to share phone records Tuesday. This comes the day after the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) released a report on the program.

Chesapeake, Norfolk, Newport News, Suffolk, and Hampton signed a memorandum of understanding for the Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network in 2013. The cities agreed to share information from subpoenaed phone call detail records, subpoenaed subscriber information, and seized mobile devices, according to the memorandum.

Executive Director Claire Gastanaga of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia said she was requesting more information about the program from the five departments, but was already worried about it.

“We have serious concerns about whether their passive collection of this data and their maintenance of it in a database violates a state law that says that government cannot collect these kinds of records without a need shown in advance,” Gastanaga said.

Norfolk Police Chief Michael Goldsmith said the information acquired in the program is attached to a crime or a current criminal investigation.

“This is a way for us to have data available to us, that we can do some analysis on that will help us in investigations. That’s all it is. It’s not a random collecting of data. We’re not scooping up large volumes of information,” Goldsmith said.

Both Hampton and Newport News police said the data-sharing network complies with all local, state and federal laws and that information is obtained after search warrants or court orders are issued.

The ACLU of Virginia said the program conflicts with the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Privacy Act, of which former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an interpretation last year, according to CIR’s report. WAVY News asked current Attorney General Mark Herring about the program Tuesday.

“It’s not a program of my office. I’ve read a little bit of the press accounts. I think it’s really important that we make sure we give law enforcement the tools that they need in order to keep our neighborhoods and communities safe, while at the same time protecting privacy rights and following privacy laws,” Herring said.

Asked if anything stood out to him about the program, Herring replied, “I’d really need to know a lot more about them, and I’m sure they were vetted thoroughly by the respective city attorneys, who are participating.”

A spokeswoman for Virginia State Police said VSP did not join the program because the agency is governed by the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act. The spokeswoman would not elaborate on that.

A spokeswoman for Suffolk’s Police Department said the program is covered by an exemption in the act “for personal information systems maintained by law enforcement that pertains to investigations and intelligence gathering related to criminal activity.”

Chesapeake Police Chief Kelvin Wright said his department has obtained information, like numbers dialed and received and the length of conversations, but was not getting wholesale information about the phones.

Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, II released the following statement:

“It is hard to determine if the police in these jurisdictions are actually violating the law with their data gathering; however, it is hard to imagine how they could conduct the data gathering as it has been publicly reported without at least violating Virginia law, and possibly the 4th Amendment as well. When the people charged with enforcing the law are the ones violating the law, it undermines public confidence and the rule of law itself.”

Portsmouth and Virginia Beach police departments are not part of the program. WAVY News has left messages to determine why they elected not to join.

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