Tag Archives: monitoring

Lawmakers Demand Information on Federal Use of Stingray Surveillance

On Monday, four members of the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee sent letters to 24 federal agencies including the Department of State and the Securities and Exchange Commission, demanding answers regarding policies for using the controversial Stingray surveillance technology.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaf­fetz, ranking member Elijah Cummings, and Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), members of the committee’s IT subcommittee, have issued requests for information related to the potential use of stingrays, also known as cell-site simulators.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation described the tracking tool:


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 cellphone 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.


[Read more: A Guide to Stingray Cellphone Surveillance Technology]

The House Over­sight Com­mit­tee is asking the agencies to provide “policies, guidance, or memoranda” on the use of cell-site simulator technology that may have been used in conjunction with law enforcement operations. The committee is also seeking information related to Stingray use at the state and local levels, as well as copies of the contentious nondisclosure agreements law enforcement must sign in order to operate the equipment. The letters give the agencies a two week deadline to report their findings.

Chaf­fetz recently introduced the Stingray Privacy Act, which would expand newly established warrant requirements for the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security to all federal, state, and local agencies that use the cell-site simulators.

In September, the DHS joined the DOJ by announcing warrant requirements for the use of stingray equipment, but the rule changes have come under fire for possible loopholes which may allow the continued use of surveillance equipment without a warrant.

Shortly after the changes were announced, the New York Observer reported that the rule change may have been written in a way which will allow continued tracking, as well as hinder the defense of individuals who suspect they have been monitored by the Stingrays without a warrant.

Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Observer that the use of “criminal investigation” only specifies one kind of work the DOJ performs while pursuing criminals. “For instance, when federal agents use cell-site simulators for ‘national security’ purposes, they won’t be required to obtain a warrant by the terms of this policy,” Mr. Cardozo wrote on the EFF blog.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking member on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, also expressed concerns over the language used in the rules, specifically the exemptions to getting a warrant. According to the District Sentinel, Leahy stated, “I will press the Department to justify them.”

How many agencies are using these tools?

Last month Congress held its first hearing on stingray cellphone surveillance. Officials with the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security released new details about the federal government’s use of stingray surveillance, including admissions that the equipment does in fact spy on innocent bystanders’ cellphones.

During the hearing, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Seth M. Stodder revealed a new policy that allows the Secret Service to use cell site simulators without a warrant if they believe there is a “nonspecific threat to the president or another protected person.

Stodder stated that under “exceptional circumstances,” exceptions would be made and use of the device would only require approval from“executive-level personnel” at Secret Service headquarters and the U.S. attorney for the relevant jurisdiction. Despite the exemption, Stodder said the Secret Service would not use the devices in routine criminal investigations.

Just days after the congressional hearing, The Guardian revealed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is also making use of the Stingray devices.

As of November 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union has identified at least 45 different local police departments, state and federal agencies who are using the tools. Known federal agencies employing the technology include the DHS, the DOJ, the IRS, the Secret Service, the NSA, and the FBI.

To read more about Truth In Media’s coverage of Stingray surveillance, click here.

FBI Invested in License-Plate Reader Tech Despite Privacy Concerns

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in license-plate reader technology despite conflict regarding privacy concerns, according to newly released documents from the bureau.

The documents were released through a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Although heavily redacted, the emails show internal discussion on surveillance concerns related to the network of cameras that are used to capture and store license plate information.

Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) collect data for law enforcement agencies around the nation. Using the Department of Homeland Security’s Fusion Centers this program only adds to the growing list of data collection by the US government.

ALPR’s are used to gather license plate, time, date and location, that can be used to create a detailed map of what individuals are doing. The devices can be attached to light poles, or toll booths, as well as on top of or inside law enforcement vehicles. In 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that the five previous years the Department of Homeland Security distributed over $50 million in grants to fund the acquisition of license plate readers.

An internal email from June 2012 says that the FBI’s Office of General Counsel was “still wrestling with” license-plate related reader privacy issues. The concern caused an assistant director of the agency to cancel a purchase order based on the advice of lawyers. The heavily redacted email does not reveal what the specific concerns were. However, the emails did make it clear that the program was moving forward. “Once these issues have been resolved … hopefully this summer … we expect to be back. The program is still growing and we enjoy tremendous field support.”

FBI spokesman Chris Allen told the AP that the license-plate readers were being used but “they may only be deployed in support of an investigation and only if there’s a reasonable belief that they will aid that investigation.”

Emails from December 2007 show the FBI’s Video Surveillance Unit testing the system, calling it “very impressive.” The FBI purchased license plate technology from a Greensboro, North Carolina, manufacturer called ELSAG North America. Purchase orders reveal that the technology has been purchased and “deployed to numerous field offices” since at least 2010.

The ACLU applauded the apparent internal discussion but says there are still many unanswered questions. On their blog they write:

“We have no information about the types of investigations carried out with this technology. Have FBI field offices deployed license plate readers to gather intelligence on Arab and Muslim communities? To watch over Occupy or Black Lives Matter protesters? The extremely limited information released to the public does not answer these or many other possible questions.

Automatic license plate readers are a sophisticated way of tracking drivers’ locations, and when their data is aggregated over time they can paint detailed pictures of people’s lives. 

The public has a right to know what information about non-suspects is collected, how long it is retained, whether it is shared with other agencies or departments and for what reasons, and what oversight mechanisms are in place.”

The ACLU has previously revealed surveillance efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) involving license plate readers.

The DEA and the ATF were planning to monitor gun show attendees using license plate readers, according an email released through the Freedom of Information Act. The American Civil Liberties Union obtained the 2009 email which details the DEA’s Phoenix office working on a plan to “attack” guns going to an undisclosed location and gun shows. This plan included the use of LPRs. Most of the email was redacted and did not list what organization was being targeted. As the ACLU notes, “Mere attendance at a gun show, it appeared, would have been enough to have one’s presence noted in a DEA database.” The DEA responded to the emails, stating that the proposal was never implemented.

In late January, TruthInMedia reported on the existence of a federal database being run by the DEA. According to heavily redacted documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act Requests, the DEA has gathered as many as 343 million records in the National License Plate Recognition program.

For more background on how license plate readers work, and the related dangers please check out this article.


Department of Justice to Reveal New Details Of ‘StingRay’ Cellphone Surveillance

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.

New device detects nearby cops, officers not happy with product

A new car device called “Target Blu Eye,” developed and sold by the Dutch company Target Automotive, advertises the ability to warn drivers of nearby police officers, and cops are upset about this.

The device is marketed as a way to warn drivers of nearby emergency vehicles which have not turned on their emergency lights or sirens, signalling their proximity to the driver.

Blu Eye works by monitoring frequencies used by various emergency vehicles, including ambulances, firetrucks, and police cars, and then alerts the driver to the presence of such vehicles.  According to the Free Thought Project, the monitor also works when radars and other equipment used by police even when the equipment is turned off.  Even a turned off police radio on a foot-patrol is reportedly detected by the device.

Naturally, Blu Eye has already been called a crook’s best friend by many people who are opposed to the system.

The Sunday Times spoke to the Association of Police Officers in the UK, who said, “It is an offence to impede or obstruct the work of the police, and this includes warning drivers about police activities to combat offences on the roads.”

Dan Bizley, chief engineer for Blu Eye, said, though it warns people of nearby emergency vehicles, it cannot distinguish between the type of emergency vehicle.  “As it does not distinguish between a police car, ambulance or fire engine responding to an emergency,” said Bizley, “this particular device is sadly just as likely to be bought by a minority of motorists who wish to evade being caught behaving illegally.”

Because Blu Eye does not distinguish or  interfere with the signals and frequencies used by emergency vehicles, there is no legal precedent to make the device illegal, at least in parts of Europe where the device is sold.

Jan Rijks, the Dutch inventor of Blu Eye, also said, yes the system can be used to potentially evade police, but if you are driving in an urban setting, the device would constantly be lighting up with warnings as emergency vehicles and personnel are everywhere in cities.  Rijks did say the device makes people “more aware of their speed and driving behaviour” since they are getting warnings, and this results in safer drivers. 

Currently, the device is only available in Europe for the hefty sum of about $1,600, but according to a FOX News report, Rijks said a US model is currently in the works and could be available in the next year.