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More Stingray Abuses Uncovered

The US law enforcement community has for years sought to hide  details about its Stingray devices from the both judiciary and the public. Why would they do that? The answer is obvious: to mask the furtive nature of it in operation. We have commented at length in this space on Stingrays, their abusive use, and how law enforcement has attempted to pull the wool over our eyes, and that of the courts. We have also recounted instances where police and prosecutors have gone to great lengths – even to the extent of risking convictions being thrown out in order keep the use of Stingrays a secret.

But as the layers are peeled away from the onion known as Stingray, or Triggerfish, or the IMSI catcher, we can now report that this device can and has done more than just locate a suspect’s cellphone. It is also capable of recording phone messages and voice calls and acting like a ’’bug”, which opens up an entirely new can of worms. As someone who has written about Stingrays over the past year, what I find frightening is that I am late to the party, as it were, because the Stingray has been operational for almost a decade.

Another scary fact is that civil liberties groups have been fighting since 2008 to obtain information about how the government uses the technology, and under what authority. A 2008 guideline prepared by the Justice Department to advises law enforcement agents on when and how the equipment can be legally used, information was recently obtained by the ACLU, but only after a protracted legal battle.

For the uninitiated, the Stingray is a suitcase- size device that simulates a cell tower, but it transmits a stronger signa,l making the target cell phone lock onto it rather than the actual cell tower. Once a phone’s general location is determined, investigators can use a handheld device that provides more pinpoint precision in finding the location of a phone or mobile device, including being able to pinpoint an exact office or apartment where the device is being used.

It has long been suspected that some stingrays used by law enforcement have the ability to intercept the content of voice calls and text messages, but law enforcement agencies have insisted that the devices they use are not configured to do so. It now is now apparent, however, that they dosomething that has even been acknowledged by the London police.

Stingrays are not to be employed unless a court order is obtained, but there are “exceptional circumstance” under which it may be used if law enforcement deems an emergency exists. Here the situation gets murky, because, obviously, it is law enforcement that determines the emergency.

A hack of a financial institution might be one scenario in which a court order is not needed beforehand but sought retroactively. The ACLU has long accused the government of misleading judges in using the pen register/trap and trace terms, since Stingrays are primarily used not to identify phone numbers called and received, but to track the location and movement of a mobile device.

Privacy advocates believe that law enforcement’s interpretation of what constitutes an emergency gives them too much discretion, and that few situations rise to the level of not requiring court permission or oversight. Another thing conveniently overlooked is that Investigators also seldom tell judges that the devices collect data from all phones in the vicinity of a Stingra, not just a targeted phone, and can disrupt regular cell network services. The Stingray is so powerful that its signal can render internet use of cell phones in the area inoperative, another factor not divulged to the courts.

As a result of the persistent efforts by civil liberty groups, and growing public outcry, the use of Stingrays will now be more regulated at the federal level. Ironically, local police, who use and obtain the devices only with federal approval, will still be able to employ them with impunity. This is not a satisfactory outcome, and prompts more vigilance and outrage.


Stan Ward 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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2 responses to “More Stingray Abuses Uncovered

  1. Why is this the first I have heard (read) of this device? I never actually believed my cell conversations, texts, etc. were ever free from the ability to eavesdrop on them.

    However this is the first I have heard of a “Stingray” (name of the actual device, size, how it works, the estimated reach of it’s abilities), and that local police have just as much access to them as say the CIA, FBI, or NSA who built the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center in Bluffdale Utah, rumored to be FIVE times the size of the Nation’s Capitol.

    http://www.wired.com/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utah_Data_Center

    I think it’s pretty safe for most Americans to say the U.S.A. has not resembled anything near a “free country” for at least 50 years now. Especially now that anyone who engages in civil disobedience is tased then shot (numerous iPhone videos have documented this by civilians) by some police officers who panic (then escape appropriate penalties), when our parents did so (I’m 46 and my parents protested the movement of Trident nuclear missiles by freight train into a storage facility in the California Bay Area, were politely arrested and released a few hours later), and escaped with little more than a good hosing by the police with water (protests to integrate schools in the South 1960s Alabama, Mississippi, and end segregation in the States that still practiced it). Back in those days there were a few times that police used lethal force. One that comes to mind is when Kent State University, Kent Ohio, is when the National Guard were called in while a few students were non-violently protesting Nixon’s Cambodian Campaign on May 4, 1970. Many of those shot were actually not protesting but were merely observers, and 4 students were murdered altogether, 1 additional student was paralyzed for life. But individuals did not carry around mobile phones with miniature video cameras in 1970, in fact such technology was still considered Science Fiction even in the 1980s, especially with the small physical dimensions and large computing capability our phones have today.

    I don’t think very many people give much thought to what they are saying when they utter the phrase: “this is a free country, I can do what I want.” Maybe the dope your friends are smoking with you now is free, or nobody will smack your mouth for the trash you’re talking, but capitalism will charge you ten times more than what they paid for it once it’s legalized. And that is ONE redeeming reason marijuana was not legalised by voters in Ohio, during the November, 2015 election. Not because I am against legalization, but they wanted to give only a few large corporations the license to grow and sell in that State. If you are going to legalize, do it right, don’t turn it into capitalist greed where the 1% thrive on the poverty and misery of the other 99%.

    I have no problem with a few brilliant people getting insanely rich on a brilliant invention or an unbelievable talent, but not a few having a monopoly on something that everyone needs to survive, thrive, or enjoy a comfortable life with all people having the same access to education, new technology, housing, sewage treatment, clean water, medical care, and life sustaining, great paying jobs as everyone else, or adequate social security for the elderly, disabled, and sick, so they may also exist similarly. Some call it Socialism, I think of it as a Human Rights issue.

  2. Their gonna be what they deem they
    need to. And protect who they choose
    through what laws they deem fit. The
    public is their source for their actions.
    Be that as it may, it is what it is. Till the lease on this planet runs out.

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