18+ States Rely on “Stingrays” (Fake Cell Towers) for Surveillance – Is this an Invasion of Privacy?

23 September 2014 Internet, IT & e-Discovery Blog Blog
Authors: Peter Vogel

Privacy issues have been highlighted by a recent Newsweek report that “mysterious devices sprinkled across America—many of them on military bases—that connect to your phone by mimicking cell phone towers and sucking up your data“ and an earlier Florida Today report that “[l]ocal and state police, from Florida to Alaska, are buying Stingrays with federal grants aimed at protecting cities from terror attacks, but using them for far broader police work” led the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to intervene in a lawsuit to learn more about Stingrays.

The ACLU reported on June 3, 2014 “VICTORY: Judge Releases Information about Police Use of Stingray Cell Phone Trackers” that the Judge granted its Motion for Public Access to Sealed Judicial Records in the case of State of Florida vs. James Thomas.  The Judicial Records were part of an investigation by the Tallahassee Police Department’s means of locating and arresting a rape suspect which relied on Stingrays which were used as follows:

  • Stingrays “emulate a cellphone tower” and “force” cell phones to register their location and identifying information with the stingray instead of with real cell towers in the area.
  • Stingrays can track cell phones whenever the phones are turned on, not just when they are making or receiving calls.
  • Stingrays force cell phones in range to transmit information back “at full signal, consuming battery faster.” Is your phone losing battery power particularly quickly today? Maybe the cops are using a stingray nearby.
  • When in use, stingrays are “evaluating all the [cell phone] handsets in the area” in order to search for the suspect’s phone. That means that large numbers of innocent bystanders’ location and phone information is captured.
  • In this case, police used two versions of the stingray — one mounted on a police vehicle, and the other carried by hand. Police drove through the area using the vehicle-based device until they found the apartment complex in which the target phone was located, and then they walked around with the handheld device and stood “at every door and every window in that complex” until they figured out which apartment the phone was located in. In other words, police were lurking outside people’s windows and sending powerful electronic signals into their private homes in order to collect information from within.
  • The Tallahassee detective testifying in the hearing estimated that, between spring of 2007 and August of 2010, the Tallahassee Police had used stingrays approximately “200 or more times.”

The ACLU claims that 43 agencies in 18 states own stingrays and “many agencies continue to shroud their purchase and use of stingrays in secrecy.”  Given the continuing use of cell devices the use of Stingray towers appear to be easy camouflage for police agencies but pose a threat to privacy.

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