Company Behind Stingray Cell Phone Surveillance Tool Lied to the FCC

The American Civil Liberties Union has asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the maker of the controversial Stingray surveillance tool for allegedly misrepresenting information regarding data collection capabilities.

According to new documents obtained during a Freedom of Information Request by the ACLU of Northern California, Florida-based Harris Corporation misled the FCC about the frequency of use for the Stingray.

Stingrays mimic cell phone towers and trick phones into reporting identifying information. Because of this the FCC must approve the technology before its sold to state and local police.  Emails released to the ACLU contain a communication between an employee of Harris and the FCC.

“In an email from June 24, 2010, an employee with Harris claims:

Just want to make you aware of the question below we received regarding the application for the Sting Fish. I know many of these questions are generated automatically but it sounds as if there is some confusion about the purpose of the equipment authorization application. As you may recall, the purpose is only to provide state/local law enforcement officials with authority to utilize this equipment in emergency situations. [Emphasis added].

Unfortunately this is not true. The problem? By 2010, when this email was written, it should have been patently obvious to the Harris representative that the use of StingRay technology for emergency situations was quickly becoming the exception, not the rule. As we describe in our letter to the FCC today, “records released by the Tallahassee, Florida, Police Department explain that in nearly 200 cases since 2007 where the department used a StingRay, only 29 percent involved emergencies; most of the rest involved criminal investigations in which there was ample time to seek some sort of authorization from a judge.”

As the ACLU points out, records released by the Tallahassee, Florida, Police Department show that for the cases involving the Stingray, only 29 percent were emergencies. The ACLU also reports that in 2012 the Charlotte Police Department attempted to gain city council approval to “assist in searches related to criminal and/or homeland security investigations.” The Gwinnett County, Georgia, Police Department admitted to using the Stingray  “in criminal investigations with no restrictions on the type of crime.” 

It would appear that the Harris Corporation misled FCC officials while seeking approval for their device. The ACLU is seeking further information regarding Harris’ application to the FCC and is pressuring the agency to  investigate.

So what exactly does the Stingray do?

Beyond the fact that the device tricks cell phones into sending data to law enforcement, little was known about the device until early this Summer. In June Ben reported on a ruling by a Florida judge which forced the release of  new documents related to police use of “stingray” cell phone tracking technology.

“The ruling deals with a lawsuit from the ACLU involving a case where Tallahassee police used a stingray to locate a suspected rapist’s apartment without first getting a warrant. When the police officer involved in tracking the suspect testified in court, the federal government stepped in to demand secrecy, the court obliged, closed the hearing and sealed the transcript. After the ACLU asked the judge to unseal the court transcript based on constitutional First Amendment access to court proceedings, the government attempted to invoke national security privilege by invoking the Homeland Security Act.

The ACLU was able to convince the judge to release the transcript, providing more details about the law enforcement tool that was first revealed last Summer by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The new documents confirm that cell phones can be tracked as long as the phone is on, whether or not you are making or receiving calls. Also, the stingrays force cell phones to send data to the device “at full signal, consuming battery faster.”  For an activist or journalist a constantly dying battery could be a sign that you are being tracked.

The court transcript also reveals a case where the police drove around with a vehicle-based stingray until they located the apartment complex where their suspect was staying. Upon locating the complex the officers switched to a handheld device and went to “every door and every window in that complex” until the phone transmitting the signal was located. A police officer testified that as far back as 2007 the device were being used. He estimated between Spring of 2007 and August 2010 the police used the stingrays around “200 or more times.””

It’s one thing to have corporations selling a product to the government in the name of safety and security. But what happens when that corporation includes non-disclosure agreements as part of their contracts? Local police department become subordinate to the companies and even in court cases are not allowed to speak on the details of their arrangements.  That is exactly what Harris Corp has done. Now, with the latest finding from the ACLU’s lawsuit, we know that Harris is lying to government agencies regarding the use of their products.

How are free humans supposed to trust Big Business and Big Government when they continue to work together to invade our privacy and freedom?