General security

The Unattended Use of Stingray Devices Finally Gets Noticed

Hannah George
December 24, 2017 by
Hannah George

Police agencies around the United States are using the "Stingray," a powerful surveillance tool, which is even more potent than a spyware app made for wireless devices. This device is being used to mimic cell phone signals to tap into the cell phones of citizens, track their physical location, and even intercept their communications.

The Stingray is currently being used in 23 states along with the District of Columbia. This device was initially designed for use on the foreign battlefields of the war on terrorism. However, the police agencies are doing whatever they can to keep information about this device from the public and even defense attorneys and judges.

In the recent years, Stingrays have moved from military and national security applications to routine police use. Although this technology gives law enforcement officers an advantage over the surveillance targets it does not justify its secrecy; nor are constitutional concerns being addressed.

How does it work?

Stingrays help the government agencies to locate a cell phone without using the assistance of the cell carriers. They are cellular-site simulators. They mimic the signal of the cell phone tower for forcing the cell phones within an area to connect to the Stingray device.

A cell phone typically is designed to automatically connect to a cell tower that broadcasts the strongest signals. The Stingray devices produce boosted signals, and hence they become the preferred source for the cell phone to connect.

It is not just the cell phone users who are unaware of this type of snooping; even the network carriers do not know a Stingray device is working. So, once the phone connects to the device, the Stingray operator can easily locate the phone and retrieve whatever information he or she wants to. The cell phone's location is triangulated by using an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (ISMI) which is a unique number used by cell phones to communicate with the cellular network.

Is it justified to use a Stingray?

The law enforcement authorities have given a number of justifications for the use of this technology, but does all this justify its covert usage?

There is a complete lack of transparency regarding the use of this technique. The federal government has been reluctant to disclose which department agencies own or lease these kinds of devices. On top of it, there are no proper protocols put in place to ensure that these devices are being lawfully utilized.

Secrecy agreements have been signed by the various law enforcement agencies nationwide, so it is difficult for Americans to figure out who is snooping on their devices, how they are being snooped, and when they are being snooped upon. The ACLU has filed a number of lawsuits to discover more about what Stingrays are and how are they are being used. It recently filed a lawsuit against the Delaware State Police after it refused to give information on the use of this technology. The Department of Justice stepped in and supported the decision of this police agency.

Instead of investigating terrorism cases, technologies like Stingrays are being used by the state and local law enforcement agencies for investigating robberies and drug trafficking. However, that is not the only thing that this technology is being used for. It is also sweeping away the data of hundreds of innocent phone bystanders.

Court says the use of Stingray without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment

In 2015, the Justice Department issued a policy guidance to its agencies that a search warrant must be obtained for using Stingray, but this ruling was not binding on the state and local police. However, recently the Civil Liberties Advocates has mentioned that providing an individual's location to the police without the approval of the court is considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment right.

The use of cell-site simulators without a warrant has started to come under question. A federal judge in 2016 suppressed DEA evidence obtained through such a device. It was the very first time a judge has done so. In 2016, members of Congress called for legislation to protect the privacy of the citizens and require a warrant before using a device like the Stingray. At the beginning of 2017, two bills were introduced in the House of Representatives as well.

In the ruling, the judges said that the use of a cell-site simulator for locating a person through their cell phone invades that person's privacy. As a result, this ruling can affect the ongoing and even future cases of the use of this technology by law enforcement agencies.

It is important to note that the use of Stingray devices just does not have implications here in the United States. The impacts can even be felt right across the border into Canada. In this regard, various law enforcement agencies such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Ontario Provincial Police, Correctional Services Canada have been secretly caught using these devices against their own citizens.

The RCMP currently owns 10 cell site simulators, and it has been discovered that the Stingray device was actually used to record and keep track of the conversations of inmates, the correctional staff, and visitors to the various prison facilities located throughout Canada. Even the make of the cell phone, the individual phone numbers, and SIM card numbers were recorded as well.

However, several Canadian law enforcement agencies have been forthcoming about their use of the Stingray device; examples of these include both the Calgary and Winnipeg police. The former has used the technology 21 times since 2015.

They state that they have a cell site simulator, but do not covertly intercept any form of private communications. The latter acknowledges its use, but is not forthcoming with any more information other than no personal information or data is collected.

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However, the Toronto Police Services is not forthcoming about its use of the Stingray. As a result, a Freedom of Information Request was thus filed back on December 6, 2016. One year later, no information yet has been forthcoming.

Hannah George
Hannah George

I am Hannah George. I am positivity engager, tech blogger & coffee addict. I have a degree in Journalism and Modern Greek Studies from San Francisco State University. Writing is my passion and I write about tech news, trends, new apps and other tangentially related topics with a particular interest in wearables and exercise tech. When I am not writing, I go out biking on long trails. I live in San Francisco with my pet cat Sushi.