US government and police go to great lengths to hide spy tactics

Barack Obama swept into office in six years ago with the promise to bring transparency to government. Unfortunately, that has not happened. His administration has been mired in one controversy after another surrounding the surveillance actions of the NSA and its tepid response in reforming government abuses. The obnoxious spying practices by government agencies continues amid Administration promises to reign in the practices. Yet another round of complaints is being heard as a different kind of intrusive snooping by the government has been uncovered.

Local police forces nationwide, emboldened by the metadata collection of spy agencies and flush with money from federal grants, have engaged in a new, secretive information gathering technique which enables them to extract cell phone data from peoples’ homes. The practice employs International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers- also more commonly known as Stingrays.

These are like fake cell phone towers which are mounted on police vans that can be pointed toward any given area and force every phone in the area to connect to it. You don’t have to be engaged in a conversation for the Stingray to work. It will detail who you’ve been calling, for how long, and give your precise location.

This abuse of privacy has been conducted without warrants as the local police and federal government have not acknowledged using the tactic. Moreover, the Associated Press (AP) reported this week that the Obama administration has been telling local law enforcement to keep information on Stingrays secret from the press. According to the AP:

Federal involvement in local open records proceeding is unusual. It comes at a time when President Barack Obama has said he welcomes a debate on government surveillance and called for more transparency about spying in the wake of disclosures about classified federal surveillance programs.

Examples of subterfuge used to avoid disclosing use of the Stingray device include the hiding of records from the ACLU by US Marshalls, even though access to the files was approved in a valid records request by the ACLU. The USA Today, in publishing news about the Stingray problem, also uncovered another police tactic called “cellphone tower dumps”.

When police agencies don’t have Stingrays at their disposal, they can go to cell phone providers to access the cellphone location information of everyone who has connected to a specific cell tower. This practice sweeps up thousands of innocent citizens in the dragnet. And this plays right into the game-plan of the NSA in relying on a strategy that collecting massive amounts of data is permitted as long as the courts aren’t aware of it.

These sophisticated devices aren’t cheap. Which raises the question as to how cash strapped municipalities paying for the technology? The answer is that the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security are awarding federal grants to the locals to the tune of about $400,000 per Stingray.

This is only one example of the US government “militarizing” local police departments. This phenomenon is only now getting widespread attention. The Obama administration has chosen a policy of silence and turning a blind eye, belying the transparency credentials it boasted during the election campaign.

Fortunately for the average citizen there is hope on the horizon in the form of court action. This week the ACLU won a historic victory in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals which encompasses Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The court ruled that the police must get a warrant from a judge before vacuuming information about your cell phone from a cell tower. It is assumed that this would include information to be gleaned from the controversial Stingrays.

This case is momentous because it just about ensures that the US Supreme Court will one day have to get involved. Ultimately upon their decision will rest the case of warrantless searches for cell phone information by police. It invariably will have an impact on the NSA’s indiscriminate metadata collection regime. Hopefully the era of unfettered government snooping, whether nationally or locally, is near an end.

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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