Tag: stingray

Stingray: A New Frontier in Police Surveillance

I’ve written previously on this blog regarding stingray devices: powerful surveillance tools which allow law enforcement agents to spy on the cell phones of unsuspecting Americans, often without judicial or legislative oversight.

For a deeper dive into the subject, I’ve put together a policy analysis detailing the past history, present issues, and future prospects of stingray devices and police surveillance more generally.

From the executive summary:

Police agencies around the United States are using a powerful surveillance tool to mimic cell phone signals to tap into the cellular phones of unsuspecting citizens, track the physical locations of those phones, and perhaps even intercept the content of their communications.

The device is known as a stingray, and it is being used in at least 23 states and the District of Columbia. Originally designed for use on the foreign battlefields of the War on Terror, “cell-site simulator” devices have found a home in the arsenals of dozens of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

Baltimore Police Admit Thousands of Stingray Uses

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.

Erie County Forced to Hand Over Stingray Documents

A few weeks ago, a New York judge ruled that the Erie County Sheriff’s Office had inappropriately denied a freedom of information request from the NYCLU regarding the office’s use of Stingray cell phone trackers.  The judge ordered the sheriff to release the documents that had been inappropriately withheld.

Yesterday, the sheriff complied and the documents prove exactly what transparency and civil liberties advocates have been arguing: these devices are often deployed in complete secrecy and with no judicial oversight.

Per the NYCLU press release:

The Sheriff’s Office used Stingrays at least 47 times between May 1, 2010, and October 3, 2014, including to assist other law enforcement departments like the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. It appears that the office only obtained a court order in only one of those 47 circumstances, in October 2014, and even in that case it was not a warrant but a lower level court order (called a “pen register” order). This contradicts what the sheriff said to a local reporter and undermines what he said to the legislature – that this device is being used subject to “judicial review.”

Further, the federal government is directly complicit in this secrecy, forcing law enforcement agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for use of the devices.  The agreements forbid participating law enforcement agencies from disclosing the nature of these devices, even to judges and defense attorneys.  The agreement even contains provisions giving the FBI the authority to compel prosecutors to drop criminal cases rather than reveal the Stingray use to the court.

From the non-disclosure agreement:

In addition, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office will, at the request of the FBI, seek dismissal of the case in lieu of using or providing, or allowing others to use or provide, any information concerning the Harris Corporation wirelesss collection equipment/technology, its associated software, operating manuals, and any related documentation (beyond the evidentiary results obtained through the use of the equipment/technology), if using or providing such information would potentially or actually compromise the equipment/technology. This point supposes that the agency has some control or influence of the prosecutorial process.  Where such is not the case, or is limited so as to be inconsequential, it is the FBI’s expectation that the law enforcement agency identify the applicable prosecuting agency, or agenices, for inclusion in this agreement.

This is not just idle boilerplate.  Although that provision of the agreements has until now been redacted, civil liberties advocates have long assumed its existence based on several instances of serious criminal charges being dropped when scrupulous defense attorneys or judges start inquiring into how police were able to locate suspects. Perhaps more troubling, the conditional nature of that provision implies that police and prosecutors can use information gleaned from these devices unless the judge or opposing counsel asks the right questions to expose the Stingray use.  That implication raises a troubling question: how often has evidence from illicit Stingray use been allowed to stand because neither the judge nor the lawyer knew what to look for?

A legitimate justice system requires transparency and accountability.  It requires checks and balances and respect for the rule of law. With every revelation about the widespread and unfettered use of cell site simulators by police, it becomes more clear that this program flies in the face of our cherished principles of justice.