Newly Released “StingRay” Manual Shows Company Asked FCC for Secrecy

A heavily redacted edition of a 2010 manual for the StingRay cellphone surveillance devices has been released.

The manual was released through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests sent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by The Blot Magazine. This marks the first public release of the user manual which covers the Harris Corporation’s StingRay, StingRay II, and Kingfish devices.

StingRays are the name of a brand of cell-site simulators, a tool which allows law enforcement to trick a phone into sending it’s cell signal (and associated data) to the device rather than a cell tower. Depending on the model, authorities are able to gather location, numbers dialed, length of calls, and in newer models, the actual contents of conversations and texts.

The Blot reports that an FCC official said an additional government agency was recruited to help with redactions related to the manuals before they could be released. The agency was not named but with the amount of secrecy the Federal Bureau of Investigation has employed around the devices it would come as no surprise to find out it was the bureau. At the same time, we know that the NSA and the US Marshals also have an interest in keeping StingRays private.

The Blot first filed a FOIA request with the FCC in September 2014.The documents were finally turned over to The Blot last week and now reveal that Harris Corp attempted to block the release of the documents. By October a Harris executive had told the FCC they believed the documents could remain secret under certain FOIA exemptions that protects the release of trade secrets, and law enforcement strategies. Harris also attempted to block the release based on previous court cases which have kept the details hidden.

The StingRays have received an increasing amount of attention from civil liberties and privacy advocates throughout 2014 and the beginning of 2015. Several lawsuits have been launched and judges in Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Erie County, New York have ordered details be revealed. Several Senators have even begun questioning the FCC, and the Department of Justice on the tools.

It has been known for some time that the technology is the latest in a long line of tools that were developed for the military and passed down to local law enforcement. The new records reviewed by The Blot provide further detail. A contract shows the U.S. Navy was one of the first to purchase the equipment from Harris. The Blot suggests this might have something to do with the aquatic nicknames.

The Blot reports:

Sources familiar with Harris’ 2010 application told The Blot that the company had received authorization from the FCC several years before to manufacture and sell the devices specifically as an anti-terrorism tool, and that its application to the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) was intended to expand that authorization so that police could use legally use the devices beyond terrorism investigations.

The definition of what constituted an “emergency” was intentionally left vague so that the authorization would cover law enforcement in a wide range of criminal investigations, the source said.

The manual also shows the StingRays and Kingfish technology was sold as part of a surveillance kit with third-party software and laptops. The laptops are manufactured by Dell and Panasonic and the software designed by a cellphone forensics company called Pen-Link. The manual is filled with warnings and reminders that the information is “confidential,” and “not for public inspection”.

These latest documents provide a view into how the technology operates and highlights the level of secrecy Harris Corp and government agencies are using. 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.

In Houston I have worked to expose the Houston Police Department’s use of the StingRays. I have asked HPD Chief three times (one, two) about the use of the tools and he continues to remain quiet despite documentation that the department is using the tools. His behavior is indicative of departments and chiefs around the country. Only by challenging the power structures in government, corporations, and the secrecy they thrive in will we set this nation and this world FREE.

For more information check out this Guide to Stingray Technology.