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.