Stingrays Being Used in the UK

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

June 1, 2016

Move over US, the UK, after years of playing catch-up, is crashing the Stingray party! The device, in ubiquitous use by law enforcement in the States, is also known as an IMSI-catcher. It is known to have been employed by UK police since 2011, but just how widespread its use is anyone’s guess – they are not saying. But is has been determined that Stingrays are used by prison authorities in Scotland to thwart the illegal use of cell phones by inmates.

At first glance, this would seem like an ideal situation for using the technolog,y instead of its furtive use by US law enforcement. After all, by definition, the people incarcerated are guilty of some crime, and cellphones are prohibited in the confines of the prison.

For the uninitiated, Stingrays are devices that mimic cell tower, allowing them to to identify the location of cellphones.  In America, the vast majority are mobile, and are affixed to a motor vehicle, or even one that is airborne. Regardless of the how and where it is affixed, civil libertarians object to their odious employment. The main argument against adopting their use is that they may inadvertently hoover information from cellphones other than the intended target(s).

A prison setting would seem to preclude that possibility, since mobile phones are forbidden there. So, it would appear that maybe the Stingray has for once found a noble niche for itself. Of course, if you’re a prison employee doing something naughty in a restricted space within the walls, you may not be inclined to agree.

Much of the apprehension, and hence the opposition, to Stingrays in the US stemmed from what is believed to be their specifically unauthorized use and judicial obfuscation. Indeed, it was determined that many judges in executing warrants for phone surveillance were not even aware of the devices or their capabilities – to say nothing about their deployment.

With regard to the IMSI-catchers being used in a penal institution, however, I am not at all familiar with how that would play out in legal circles. In other words, if a warrant is necessary, given the lack of privacy rights in being a convicted, incarcerated, individual. But this limited scope of employment would seem to be an appropriate use of Stingrays. Certainly better than in a neighborhood of law-abiding citizens!

The allure of the clandestine surveillance device was great enough for the Scottish police Scotland to consider its use in the Greater Edinburgh area. However, upon further reflection, and something noteworthy to advocates of the Stingray in the US, it was deemed that the risk of tampering with the phones of passers-by was too high.

Thus, it was relegated just to prisons.  Unfortunately, this perspective isn’t shared by London’s Metropolitan Police, who reluctantly acknowledge that the IMSIs have been widely deployed and used throughout the city for years. Not surprisingly, the Met wouldn’t divulge the number or locations of the Stingrays.

But the application of IMSI technology seems to make sense when selectively used (such as in the Scottish prison instance) rather than unleashed on a law-abiding and innocent citizenry at large. In a prison there are no innocent bystanders, and possession of a cellphone is a criminal offense. At least there, it is not a threat to civil liberty and personal privacy. The world should take notice.

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