The Department of Justice plans to begin revealing details on the use of Stingray cellphone tracking tools, according a new report from the Wall Street Journal.
Officials with the Justice Department told the WSJ that they have launched a review into how law-enforcement agencies use the controversial technology.
StingRays are the name of a brand of cell-site simulators, a tool which allows law enforcement to trick a phone into sending its cell signal (and associated data) to the device rather than a cell tower. This gives authorities the ability to gather location, numbers dialed, length of calls, and in newer models, the actual contents of conversations and texts.
Devlin Barrett, the WSJ reporter behind the story, tweeted that the internal review began before Attorney General Eric Holder left office. A DOJ spokesman stated that the department is, “examining its policies to ensure they reflect the Department’s continuing commitment to conducting its vital missions while according appropriate respect for privacy and civil liberties.”
The announcement from the DOJ comes as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) released thousands of pages of heavily-redacted documents related to Stingrays. The document dump came in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from MuckRock’s Alex Richardson. One of the redacted documents is titled “Cellphone Tracking for Dummies.”
Although the content of the documents is censored, the recipients of the communications indicate that the FBI has been passing on information on Stingrays to state and local departments around the country.
Details of how exactly the devices work remains shrouded in secrecy, but that trend seems to be changing as the public questions the use of these tools. In late March, a heavily redacted edition of a 2010 manual for the StingRay was released.
The manual was released through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests sent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by The Blot Magazine. This marked the first public release of the user manual which covers the Harris Corporation’s StingRay, StingRay II, and Kingfish devices.
The manual provides a view into how the technology operates and highlights the level of secrecy Harris Corp, the manufacturer of the Stingray, and government agencies are employing. Past documents have shown that most police departments have been granting themselves authorization without first getting a warrant based on probable cause. When the departments do pursue a warrant through a judge, they often do not specifically mention the Stingray specifically but rather use vague and generic terms.
The promises of the DOJ and the document release from the FBI could hint at a more transparent policy towards the technology. However, not everyone is impressed. The American Civil Liberties Union writes:
“Federal law enforcement’s move toward using warrants for this invasive technology is welcome and long overdue, as is the promise of increased transparency. But major questions remain.
First, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department is slow-walking the move toward decreased secrecy around Stingrays because it doesn’t “want to reveal information that would give new ammunition to defense lawyers in prosecutions where warrants weren’t used.” If that is so, the promise of greater transparency is a sham. Law enforcement agencies have been violating the rights of defendants and non-suspects for years by failing to get warrants and then hiding the fact and details of Stingray use from defense attorneys and courts. Trying to insulate these violations from challenge by maintaining secrecy until pending cases have concluded will perpetuate the government’s outrageous conduct.”
While the federal government promises more accountability, several states are seeking to pass legislation that would require a clear process for the use of Stingrays and similar devices. On April 23, New York State Senator Michael Ranzenhofer became the latest representative to introduce a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a judicial order before deploying a “mobile phone surveillance device or system.”
For more information check out this Guide to Stingray Technology.