A new report from the Center for Investigative Reporting reveals that police in Chicago and Los Angeles are using advanced cell site simulators, or “Stingray” surveillance technology capable of breaking cellphone encryption. Truth In Media has written extensively about how the devices are being used to track suspected criminals while largely operating without oversight from local, state, or federal authorities. Exactly how the devices operate and what data they collect and/or save has been unknown because of a vast amount of secrecy surrounding the tools.

[RELATED: Newly Released “StingRay” Manual Shows Company Asked FCC for Secrecy]

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

“THE STINGRAY IS A BRAND NAME OF AN IMSI (INTERNATIONAL MOBILE SUBSCRIBER IDENTITY) CATCHER TARGETED AND SOLD TO LAW ENFORCEMENT.

A STINGRAY WORKS BY MASQUERADING AS A CELL PHONE TOWER—TO WHICH YOUR MOBILE PHONE SENDS SIGNALS TO EVERY 7 TO 15 SECONDS WHETHER YOU ARE ON A CALL OR NOT— AND TRICKS YOUR PHONE INTO CONNECTING TO IT. AS A RESULT, THE GOVERNMENT CAN FIGURE OUT WHO, WHEN AND TO WHERE YOU ARE CALLING, THE PRECISE LOCATION OF EVERY DEVICE WITHIN THE RANGE, AND WITH SOME DEVICES, EVEN CAPTURE THE CONTENT OF YOUR CONVERSATIONS.”

[RELATED: Company Behind Stingray Cell Phone Surveillance Tool Lied to the FCC]

Most of the information been released through the efforts of intrepid investigative journalists and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) activists has related specifically to the manufacturer of the Stingray – the Harris Corporation. The Harris Corporation has exercised a great amount of secrecy surrounding these tools. Truth In Media previously reported on documents which revealed the Harris Corp. worked with the Federal Communications Commission to maintain a high level of secrecy. I have also documented the fact that Harris Corp. lied to the FCC in their application for the use of cell site simulators.

The Harris Corporation needs to be investigated and held accountable, but they are just one of the corporations producing cell site simulators. The devices being used by the Los Angeles and Chicago police departments are known as “dirt boxes”. They operate in the same fashion as the Stingray, however, these new documents reveal they are also capable of jamming transmissions, and breaking encryption. The CIR writes:

“The sophisticated surveillance equipment, manufactured by Digital Receiver Technology (DRT) Inc., a Maryland company acquired by The Boeing Co. in 2008, provides a more powerful class of cell-site simulator than the more widely used StingRay devices produced by Harris Corp., which require an upgrade to intercept communications and data transmissions. According to Digital Receiver Technology’s documentation, its devices are capable of breaking encryption on communications from 200 cellphones simultaneously across state-of-the-art 4G LTE frequencies used for rapid data transmission by the latest generation of smartphones.”

A cell site simulator from DRT
A cell site simulator from DRT

Digital Receiver Technology first did business with the Chicago police in 2005 with the purchase of a cell site simulator. The device was paid for with funds collected from asset forfeiture cases. Meanwhile cops in Los Angeles purchased a package from Digital Receiver Technology using $260,000 in homeland security grant funding. Both departments also use the Harris Corp’s Stingray device as well.

Procurement documents obtained by the CIR show that the United States Navy purchased  Digital Receiver Technology equipment to mount on drones at its China Lake research and development facility in Southern California. According to the CIR documents the technology is also used by the U.S. Special Operations Command, Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The major difference between the Stingray and the DRT boxes is the ability of the more advanced DRT devices to break encryption. A 2011 purchase order for this equipment by the Washington Headquarters Services, a branch of the Pentagon, states the devices can retrieve the encryption session keys for a cellphone “in less than a second with success rates of 50 to 75% (in real world conditions).”

Chicago and Los Angeles police officials will not confirm or deny the use of or possession of the devices.

Freddy Martinez, the activist who sued the Chicago Police Department for records related to cell site simulators, says the potential for spying is unlimited. “With DRT, if you put one of these on an airplane and fly them around, you can find all sorts of info about potentially thousands of people. That includes voice content, who they’re calling, what data they’re sending. It’s like a StingRay on steroids.”

Martinez is not exaggerating. In late 2014, the Wall Street Journal revealed the existence of a cell-phone monitoring program being operated by the U.S. Marshals Service using small planes. The program involved the Marshals using Cessna planes mounted with cell-site simulators.

The so-called Dirtboxes are supposed to be used for criminal investigations, but the ACLU says they can collect data from tens of thousands of people on each flight. The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a FOIA request with the Department of Justice and FBI but has yet to receive any additional information. The EFF has now filed suit against the DOJ and FBI.

In early March of 2015, it was also revealed that the CIA has been working with the Marshals on the program. Over the last ten years, the U.S. Marshal’s Technical Operations Group worked with the CIA’s Office of Technical Collection to develop the technology. The agencies have spent more than $1 million developing the technology.

In June it was revealed that agencies within the U.S. government operate fake, front companies to handle surveillance flights. Some of these flights included monitoring protesters in Baltimore.

With multiple agencies of the local, state, and federal governments operating devices capable of monitoring and storing your information, as well as cracking encryption, can it truly be said that the people are free? The freedom to have privacy is one of the greatest freedoms that humans have. If we are not free to our own private affairs, we are not free.

Check out this Guide to Stingray Technology for more information.

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