A once-secret device used by law enforcement to track an individual’s cell phone location in real-time can also be used to drop or jam innocent calls, according to privacy activists.
Privacy activists have long expressed concern over law enforcement’s use of the Stingray, a suitcase-sized device that mimics a cellphone tower, allowing law enforcement to track an individual’s cellphone in real time.
Cell-tower simulators were originally designed for use on the battlefield, allowing military units to track their opponent’s movements.
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 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 device, typically mounted in vans, mimics a cellphone tower and picks up the signal of every cellphone operating in the immediate area.
While some devices allow calls for 911 to pass through to a legitimate tower, most regular calls are dropped 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.”
“There are real privacy interests at stake when the government sends probing electronic signals into the homes of innocent people.”
“These devices cannot be used in a way that only enters the home of the target,” he added.
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 by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week expressed serious concern over the Stingray’s growing popularity among law enforcement agencies across the country combined with a lack of regulation governing its use.
“Cell-site simulator use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the use, extent and legality of government surveillance authority,” the report stated. “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.”
E-mails obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request in 2014 revealed the Marshals Service was instructing Florida law enforcement agencies to lie to judges about information obtained through use of the Stingray; police were told to claim the information was obtained from a “confidential source.”
The Marshals Service went so far as to seize documents related to the Stingray from the Sarasota Police Department before they could be turned over to the ACLU after the organization filed a FOIA request.
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.