A secret device used by law enforcement agencies and numerous federal agencies to track an individual’s cellphone in real time can also block innocent calls, according to privacy activists.
The Stingray, a suitcase-sized device, mimics a cellphone tower, allowing law enforcement to track individual cellphones in real time.
Cell-tower simulators were originally designed for use on the battlefield, allowing military units to track their enemy’ movements.
Typically mounted in vans, the device mimics a cellphone tower and picks up the signal of every cellphone in the area. While some devices allow calls for 911 to go through to a legitimate tower, most regular calls are dropping or jammed.
“Even if there is a 911 pass-through feature, there are still plenty of other calls that people might want to make,” said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. “You might want to call your children’s school. You might want to call your wife or husband.”
Law enforcement agencies that use the Stingray are required by the FBI to sign a non-disclosure agreement banning them from revealing its use in public, even during legal proceedings.
The American Civil Liberties Union released emails from 2009 showing law enforcement officers in Florida were instructed by the Marshals Service to lie to judges, claiming information actually acquired through the Stingray was received by a “confident source” instead.
“Concealing the use of stingrays deprives defendants of their right to challenge unconstitutional surveillance and keeps the public in the dark about invasive monitoring by local police,” the ACLU wrote when the emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request in 2014.
The defense contractor that produces the Stingray, Harris Corp., is required to notify the FBI whenever it sells the device to a law enforcement agency. Digital Receiver Technology Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing, produces its own version known as the Dirtbox.
The FBI reportedly has 194 Stingray devices in use; the Marshals Service has 70; Immigration and Customs Enforcement has 59, and the Internal Revenue Service has two. At least 68 law enforcement agencies in 23 states and the District of Columbia use Stingrays, with the most concentrated in California, Florida, North Carolina and Texas.
A report released this week by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform expressed concern over the Stingray’s growing popularity among law enforcement agencies across the country.
“Cell-site simulator use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the use, extent and legality of government surveillance authority,” the report said.
“While law enforcement agencies should be able to utilize technology as a tool to help officers be safe and accomplish their missions, absent proper oversight and safeguards, the domestic use of cell-site simulators may well infringe upon the constitutional rights of citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as the right to free association.”
“There are real privacy interests at stake when the government sends probing electronic signals into the homes of innocent people,” Soghoian added. “These devices cannot be used in a way that only enters the home of the target.”
The use of military equipment, such as the Stingray and Dirtbox, by law enforcement is a clear indicator of the growing militarization of domestic law enforcement agencies by the federal government in preparation for civil unrest.
“I think (cell-site simulators) are definitely part of the police militarization trend,” said Alan Butler, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.