The FBI has reportedly told various police departments throughout the U.S. to keep their use of “stingray” cellphone trackers quiet and to not inform the public of their use.
A “stingray” is a cellphone signal interception device which, according to the Daily Caller, may appear to citizens as regular cellphone towers. These trackers trick cellphones and similar devices into connecting with the tracker and once connected, whoever controls the “stingray” can access the device’s call records, texts, location, and other metadata.
Originally, the trackers were developed by the Harris Corporation for use in anti-terrorism operations throughout the U.S. in conjunction with the FBI. However, these trackers have been reportedly used in routine police work in recent years, often without a warrant. The Harris Corporation and FBI have remained silent about the full extent of the technology’s capabilities.
In order to keep the technology’s capabilities quiet, the U.S. marshals have been sent to seize physical documentation from a Florida police station which reportedly detailed the use of the trackers by the police department.
The FBI also sent a letter in 2012 to Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension which tells the agents in the department how to handle any Freedom of Information Act requests with concern to the technology.
The letter says, if a FOIA is filed, the bureau should “immediately notify the FBI of any such request telephonically and in writing in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to seek to prevent disclosure through appropriate channels.”
ARS Technica attempted to contact the FBI about the letter and their desire to keep the tracker’s technology a secret, but the FBI would not respond. Hanni Fakhoury, a lawyer with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, did say, “It’s remarkable to see collusion by state and federal agencies to undermine public records requests, which are clearly aimed at keeping the public in the dark about the use of Stingray technology.”
“The notion that the federal government would work to actively block disclosure of records,” says Fakhoury, “seems clearly to have a chilling effect on obtaining information about this controversial surveillance tool.”
Nathan Wessler, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, also said in order for a police department to begin to use “stingray” trackers, they have to go through the FBI, but when the press or public “seek basic information about how people in local communities are being surveilled, the FBI invokes these very serious national security concerns to try to keep that information private.”