Cellphone spying gear, law enforcement has it, and it wants you to forget about it

Cellphone spying gear, law enforcement has it, and it wants you to forget about it
Have you heard of the Stingray? Not the sleek, underwater fish that are related to sharks, but the cellular intercept system? These things do not make the news often, and law enforcement is just fine with that. In fact, you can almost hear the officials thinking, “Move along, nothing to see here.”

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.

These systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and many of them are provided through grants given to the police agencies (read as: taxpayer money from the federal government). The San Jose Police Department, in the heart of Silicon Valley, while preparing its grant application, sought feedback from other entities that were known to use the Stingray and got responses from the City of Oakland, City of San Francisco, Sacramento County, San Diego County, the City of and the County of Los Angeles.

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.

As for what Stingray can or cannot do, the most common configuration allows the identification of the mobile phone, numbers of calls sent and received, numbers of SMS messages sent or received, and GPS data. It is not set up to provide active intercept abilities of phone calls or texts, however, the terminology of “set up” certainly means the ability is there.

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)



1. ArtSim98

Posts: 3535; Member since: Dec 21, 2012

Ok. Cool.

4. TheMan

Posts: 494; Member since: Sep 21, 2012

"Mission creep" is a word and a half here, but I won't get into the concerns for intrusive surveillance. For now, I wonder how truly invisible this tech is to the end user. Might this contribute to the frequency of dropped calls or being fully or partly dropped from one's network?

2. Arte-8800

Posts: 4562; Member since: Mar 13, 2014

Can they detect old analogue Nokia or moto or other phones, that were made in the 90s?

3. WahyuWisnu

Posts: 1001; Member since: May 29, 2014

You don't need stingray to detect old analogue phone.

7. Augustine

Posts: 1043; Member since: Sep 28, 2013

Old analog phones ceased to work in the US in 2008 and earlier in most other countries when AMPS was shut down.

5. naittosan

Posts: 240; Member since: Jun 28, 2014

How about the Black phone

8. Droid_X_Doug

Posts: 5993; Member since: Dec 22, 2010

Black phone activity (numbers/IP addresses contacted, text messages sent, etc.) would be trackable. But if both ends were encrypted point-to-point, Stingray capture would be encrypted. Then it becomes a matter of how badly do they want to break the encryption. NSA is one matter. Sheriff dept. likely doesn't have access to resources that NSA has.

6. engineer-1701d unregistered

just like when nextel was on the 800 band they could not hear and during 911 when the phones went down nextel was the only one working thats why the gov kicked nextel sprint off the band to higher band for cheap. that or nothing

9. mturby unregistered

if u r going to spy on us, at least catch the people u r looking for!

10. Totse2k15

Posts: 478; Member since: Feb 11, 2014

I always feel like (Somebody's watching me) And I have no privacy Whooooa, oh-oh I always feel like (Somebody's watching me) I wonder who's watching me now (Who) The NSA Can I have my privacy Whooooa-oh-oh (I always feel like) (Somebody's watching me)

12. Sarah434

Posts: 6; Member since: Aug 04, 2014

Ha-ha everyone can use spy apps. Not only law enforcement. There are many apps for this in play markets.


Posts: 1; Member since: Aug 05, 2014

Lyndon420, copper netting can only take you so far and is definitely not considered a solid solution by experts. Govt has started using a box, guardian G2, to solve their problem.

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