Cellphone spying gear, law enforcement has it, and it wants you to forget about it
News 10, the ABC affiliate based in Sacramento, California, has been conducting an investigation into law enforcement agencies in California and how many of them have equipped themselves and have been using Stingray mobile surveillance gear.
For several months, News 10 has been making formal public records requests to obtain data that shows where these Stingrays are being procured. While several agencies provided documentation (albeit heavily redacted), none of them would acknowledge even owning the devices, let alone how they work.
There is more than one company that makes this kind of equipment, but the big player in this space is Harris Corporation, a major industrial and defense systems company. Based in Florida, Harris provides products and services for everything from air traffic control systems and communications technology to advanced space-based solutions. In other words: über high-tech.
The Stingray (along with other names it is sold under in a variety of configurations) literally poses as a cell tower. When our phones hand-off from one cell to another, a Stingray takes its place and acts like a man-in-the-middle. Functionality is apparently seamless enough that the cell phone user will never know the difference.
The justifications being provided by these police and sheriff departments on grant applications is in the pursuit of, and to disrupt terrorist plots to protect civilians and critical infrastructure. While that is a worthwhile cause, News 10’s acquisition of arrest records from Los Angeles and Oakland show that Stingrays are being used on routine enforcement action. This is called “mission creep” and it is something that is apparently quite common with tools used in law enforcement.
News 10 was able to gather information related to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office which has confirmed the department does actually own a Stingray, and that they use it. However, beyond that, the Sheriff’s office has refused to answer any additional questions, due, in part, to a non-disclosure agreement, which apparently all the police departments need to sign with Harris. Moreover, the department has also refused to state whether surveillance, searches and data gathered by the Stingray was conducted under authorization of a search warrant.
The department did state that its “cell site simulator” was used infrequently enough to locate suspected felons or kidnapped individuals. Sacramento Sheriff’s Office also stated that it does not retain any data gathered from people whose devices may have been picked up by Stingray, but not the target of any investigation.
Therein lies the rub, when outdoors, in public, and using your device, there is arguably a reduced expectation of privacy per se. However, recent Supreme Court rulings definitely set that expectation when it comes to mobile devices like smartphones, a warrant is required for police to search mobile devices as part of an investigation or even during a routine arrest. Furthermore, because of the range a cell-site has, people in their residences may be scooped up in the data net. Many people no longer use land-lines for phone service, preferring their mobile phones. In one’s residence, there is most definitely an expectation of privacy.
For what it is worth, the arrest records that News 10 reviewed showed that while Stingray was being used in routine enforcement actions, it was not for stuff like speeding tickets. In Oakland, 38 people were arrested during a two-year period where the crimes were homicide, attempted murder, kidnapping, and robbery.
Does that mean Stingray is being used as judiciously at the 25-plus other agencies across the country that are known to use it? That answer is not certain. Nine states have passed legislation which placed legal limitations on the use of the Stingray, but the technology itself does not know such limitations. What is certain is that the Stingray is enough of a guarded secret that police departments and other law enforcement agencies, and the manufacturer, would prefer you do not know anything more about them. Privacy advocates are not encouraged.
Below are scanned images of procurement records from the San Jose Police Department. There are several more records of Stingray procurements via the second News 10 source link below.
San Jose Police Department StingRay by Kxtvweb
sources: News 10 Sacramento (1, 2) and USA Today (graphic credits)