Feeling The Sting of Government Surveillance: The Use and Abuse of Stingray Cell Tower Simulators
Have you heard about the stingray tracking devices? They’re the latest tech being used by state and local police enforcement. Manufactured by the Harris Corporation, Stingrays are “cell-site simulators”—also known as IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity)- catchers, Wolfpacks, Gossamers, triggerfish and swamp boxes. Not much larger than a briefcase, they can be mounted in vehicles or on airplanes, helicopters and drones and then sent to areas where they can mine metadata and sometimes even content from phones which connect to them by tricking those devices into believing they are connecting with a real cell phone tower.
Originally developed and used by military and intelligence communities such as the FBI, the NSA, the DEA, the Secret Service, as well as each branch of the military, the Stingray is not without controversy—legal scholars, legislators, public interest advocates and many others have criticized use of the technology as being an unlawful abuse of power. In fact the Electronic Frontier Foundation referred to use of the devices as “an unconstitutional, all-you-can-eat data buffet”, because they have been used without the obtainment of a warrant nor with informing the court system that they are using them.
According to Wikipedia, the devices have been frequently funded by grants from the Department of Homeland Security. The site mentions that the Los Angeles Police Department used a 2006 grant by the Department of Homeland Security in order to purchase a stingray for “regional terrorism investigations”. And according to the site, the Electronic Frontier Foundation claims that the “LAPD has been using it for just about any investigation imaginable”.
Because of these issues, many law enforcement agencies are shrouding their use of the devices in secrecy—sometimes resisting judicial requests for information regarding an entity’s use of a Stingray device and its outcome. Some have honored the requests but heavily censored the information within each report. The Wikipedia site goes on to say that “in some cases, police have refused to disclose information to the courts citing non-disclosure agreements signed with Harris Corporation. The FBI defended these agreements, saying that information about the technology could allow adversaries to circumvent it. The ACLU has said ‘potentially unconstitutional government surveillance on this scale should not remain hidden from the public just because a private corporation desires secrecy. And it certainly should not be concealed from judges.’”
An article in Scientific American states that details of the technology’s use are closely guarded by national and local law enforcement agencies—with the only information getting out via by court documents and other paperwork made public through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
According to the article, “One such document recently revealed that the Baltimore Police Department has used a cell site simulator 4,300 times since 2007 and signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI that instructed prosecutors to drop cases rather than reveal the department’s use of the stingray. Other records indicate law enforcement agencies have used the technology hundreds of times without a search warrant, instead relying on a much more generic court order known as a pen register and trap and trace order.”
Wired.com reports that the Justice Department just released a new federal policy on the use of stingrays, “requiring a warrant any time federal investigators use them. The rules, however, don’t apply to local police departments, which are among the most prolific users of the technology and have been using them for years without obtaining a warrant.”
So what does this mean to the average Joe using or considering the use of some type of monitoring device or software? Well while the government and law enforcement agencies can use stingray to spy on cell phones, average consumers must rely upon mobile monitoring products such as top-rated Highster Mobile and Auto Forward to satisfy their needs for spying on cell phones.