It’s been a bad week for Stingray secrecy. Following a court-ordered document dump in New York earlier this week, a Baltimore detective yesterday testified in court that he had personally used a Stingray between 600 and 800 times during two years as a member of the Baltimore Police Department’s Advanced Technical Team. He also testified that the unit has used such devices 4,300 times since 2007.
Stingrays are handheld or vehicle-mounted surveillance devices that operate by mimicking cell towers. They have the capability to force cell phones within their range to connect with the Stingray and transmit ID information from the phone. Some models - the technology is constantly being upgraded to keep pace with advancing telecommunications infrastructure - are suspected of being able to intercept content, but the true extent of the capability is a closely-guarded secret. What is increasingly not a secret is that dozens of law enforcement agencies around the country have been using these devices for years to sweep up swaths of cell phone data, much of it from innocent people, with little to no transparency or oversight.
The Baltimore detective refused to produce the device in court, citing an FBI non-disclosure agreement. The FCC, which regulates radio-emitting devices like Stingrays, has delegated to the FBI the authority to set conditions on local use of cell site simulators. The FBI, in turn, produced an agreement so restrictive that police and prosecutors can be obligated to withdraw evidence or even drop charges rather than disclose the use of the devices to the court.
As more and more information about these devices and their uses by law enforcement trickles out, it’s worth questioning what value exists in these secrecy agreements. Despite repeated references to “terrorists” and “national security” as a means for maintaining secrecy about Stingray use, the data that has been released detailing the purposes of actual Stingray investigations - such as this breakdown from the Tallahassee Police Department that contains not a single terrorism reference - suggests that Stingrays are used virtually entirely for routine law enforcement investigations. Meanwhile, the sacrifices being made in the name of defeating terror impose a real cost.