For the last decade local police across the nation have been purchasing and training in the use of cell site simulators, alternatively known as Stingrays. TruthInMedia has written extensively on 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 a vast amount of secrecy surrounding the tools.
“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.”
Police officers can use the devices to track your cellphones signal. Once the signal is located the stingray can provide a general location on the map and police officers can drive around (or in one case, walk door to door) until they get a signal from your phone. This has civil liberties advocates up in arms over the potential for misuse of the tools.
Both the Harris Corporation that manufactures the StingRay and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) require police to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA) related to the use of the devices. Through these NDAs local police departments have become subordinate to Harris and even in court cases in front of a judge, are not allowed to speak on the details of their arrangements.
However, a spokesman with the FBI recently said the agreements are not supposed to prevent police from disclosing that have used StingRays. FBI spokesman Christopher Allen told The Washington Post that only as “a last resort” would the bureau require state and local police to drop pending cases rather than reveal new information on the use of the devices.
“The FBI’s concern is with protecting the law enforcement sensitive details regarding the tradecraft and capabilities of the device,” FBI spokesmsan Christopher Allen said in the statement.
Even if Allen’s statements are taken at face value there is still the issue of law enforcement interpreting the agreements to mean that they should not reveal any details.
“The reality is the FBI has made officers sign a non-disclosure agreement that says they may not disclose any information about the technology in a trial,” John Sawicki, a lawyer in Tallahassee, Fla. told the Post.
Nathan Wessler, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the information was insignificant, “coming only after significant details of this technology have been outed by the press.”
The comments from the FBI come after the Justice Department announced it would be reviewing its policies for use of cell-site simulators.
Should the FBI be trusted?
Should we trust the FBI’s statements that this level of secrecy will only be used in an emergency? If the statement is incorrect it would be consistent with past lies told by Harris corp and other agencies involved in the use of the tools.
In September 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the maker of the Stingray for allegedly misrepresenting information regarding data collection capabilities. According to 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.
In an email from June 24, 2010, an employee with Harris told the FCC that the devices (Stingfish in this case) “purpose is only to provide state/local law enforcement officials with authority to utilize this equipment in emergency situations.”
However, the ACLU reports, “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.”
A recent document dump in New York state provided some details on the law enforcement’s use of Stingrays but was a reminder of how difficult it has been to obtain details on surveillance tools. It was revealed that state police had spent around $640,000 on stingray equipment and training. Beyond the cost of the devices little else is known, because NY State Police claim there are no records on the use of Stingrays. This includes policies, guidelines, records related to use in investigations, or copies of court orders.
This absence of records might make sense if the State Police bought the device but never used it,” the New York Civil Liberties Union writes. “But this seems unlikely given the recent investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment upgrades and training.
For more information check out this Guide to Stingray Technology.