Tag Archives: stingrays

Senator Patrick Leahy, Privacy Groups Question DOJ’s New Rules on Surveillance

A recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice regarding new rules for federal law enforcement agencies using cellphone tracking technology may not be as effective as originally touted by the DOJ.

Truth In Media’s Rachel Blevins reported on the new rules:

“The U.S. Department of Justice announced on Thursday that it will now require U.S. prosecutors and some federal law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant in order to use cellphone tracking technology.

In a statement, the DoJ said that the new policy “goes into effect immediately” and will “provide department components with standard guidance for the use of cell-site simulators in the department’s domestic criminal investigations,” and “establish new management controls for the use of the technology.”

Before the change in policy, U.S. government agencies were permitted to use cell-site simulators or “stingray” devices to replicate phone towers in order to track a phone’s location without applying for a warrant or giving probable cause.”

However, shortly after the announcement was published, 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.

The Observer writes:

“The twist in a new Department of Justice guidance on tracking people using their cell phones is tucked in its first footnote. What looks like a positive step in terms of protecting Americans privacy in the ever deepening surveillance state might in fact be a sort of misdirection. The first footnote reads:

This policy applies to cell-site simulator technology inside the United States in furtherance of criminal investigations.”

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.”

The rule change states that in “exigent” and “exceptional” circumstances obtaining a warrant is not necessary. The department described exigent circumstances, including “the need to protect human life or avert serious injury; the prevention of the imminent destruction of evidence; the hot pursuit of a fleeing felon; or the prevention of escape by a suspect or convicted fugitive from justice.”

Although the department says the instances in which getting a warrant is “impractical” will be limited, no examples of circumstances that fit the bill were offered.

The American Civil Liberties Union released a statement calling the new rules a step in the right direction, but also commented on problematic areas.

Staff Attorney Nathan Freed Wessler writes:

“Disturbingly, the policy does not apply to other federal agencies or the many state and local police departments that have received federal funds to purchase these devices. In addition, the guidance leaves the door open to warrantless use of Stingrays in undefined ‘exceptional circumstances,’ while permitting retention of innocent bystander data for up to 30 days in certain cases.”

Cardozo also said for defendants who are arrested under evidence obtained in a warrantless use of a cell-site simulator, “You’re out of luck.”

Emily Pierce, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, responded to The Observer’s questions about the language of the rules. Pierce wrote:

“When acting pursuant to national security authorities, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Justice Department components will be required to make a probable-cause based showing as well as make appropriate disclosures to the court in a manner that is consistent with the Department’s cell-site simulator policy.”

The DOJ’s rules also promise that  “the Department must always use the technology in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution and all other legal authorities.”

Despite the DOJ’s promises, privacy advocates are likely not going to be won over by the rules. Truth In Media recently wrote about a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting which revealed that police in Chicago and Los Angeles are using advanced cell site simulators, or Stingray surveillance technology capable of breaking cellphone encryption.

Truth In Media has written extensively about 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 of a vast amount of secrecy surrounding the tools.

Most of the available information been released through the efforts of intrepid investigative journalists and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) activists has related specifically to the manufacturer of the Stingray – the Harris Corporation. The Harris Corporation has exercised a great amount of secrecy surrounding these tools. Truth In Media previously reported on documents which revealed the Harris Corp. worked with the Federal Communications Commission to maintain a high level of secrecy. I have also documented the fact that Harris Corp. lied to the FCC in their application for the use of cell site simulators.

[Read more about government involvement in stingrays here.]

Is the American public expected to believe that the new rules from the DOJ will actually reign in the surveillance state? The new rules do not change the law, so essentially the change amounts to promises from the federal government. Even if Americans take the feds on their word, what about the local police departments who are also using the devices without warrants? How can we ever trust that Big Brother is not watching or listening?

Leave your thoughts below.

FBI Claims They Are Not Responsible for Secrecy on ‘StingRay’ Surveillance

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.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation:



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.

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.