The United States Inland Revenue Service (IRS) is not having a good year. It has been the target of Republican-led Congressional investigations of it’s top officials – first of Lois Lerner, and because that failed, of Commissioner John Koskinn. The GOP investigation of Lerner, the underling overseeing tax-exempt organizations, ended in failure, so it moved onto bigger fish.
It has now been revealed that the IRS employs an unusual (for the IRS) technological device – the now ubiquitous and controversial Stingray cell phone surveillance IMSI-catcher , in order to bring tax cheaters to heel. Thus, they join the growing list of federal agencies using the secretive Harris Corporation- developed device over the past few years.
At least twelve federal agencies are known to have and employ Stingray devices, and now the IRS makes that number thirteen. Their popularity has grown amid much secrecy and controversy. Harris Corporation refuses to divulge any information about the technology involved, and the FBI, as a contingency for police to obtain them, pledges local police departments to confidentiality.
This clandestineness has even prompted some jurisdictions to drop charges against defendants, rather than bare details of how Stingrays work. Their application may be limitless. They’ve already been installed on Boeing aircraft by the US Marshall Service, and now, the IRS and its 3000-person criminal investigative arm also have Stingrays. So what does this portend?
Mark Matthews, a former deputy commissioner for services and enforcement at the agency who now works for the law firm Caplin and Drysdale, said that while he attends many conferences on IRS and tax law enforcement, he had not heard any loose talk about the agency’s use of Stingray. Nate Wessler, an ACLU staff attorney said,
“The info showing that they are using Stingrays is generally consistent with the kinds of investigative tactics that they are engaging in, and it shows the wide proliferation of this very invasive surveillance technology.”
In keeping with the secrecy and non-disclosure that surrounds Stingray use, no one is quite sure about how they are being used. It may be a nascent development that will mature, and the intent become clear over time. Since the IRS tracks terror-financing schemes and criminal money laundering, these might be areas ripe for deployment of the Stingrays. Or, in the case of typical government wastefulness of funds, the IRS had extra money left over in their budget one year, and decided to procure some devices!
In any case, it is further evidence that more oversight – judicial and otherwise – must be placed on the use of Stingrays before there is a full-blown stampede on personal privacy and liberty.