The revelation that the IRS—that mammoth bureaucracy enforcing the nightmarish tax code—purchased “stingrays” in 2009 and 2012, added another layer of controversy to the use of this intrusive surveillance device.
It has gotten so bad that a bill was just introduced in Congress that would criminalize the use of stingrays without a warrant, at all levels of government.
A stingray is a suitcase-sized device that mimics a cell phone tower, which allows it to gather locations and data of all nearby mobile phones. This violation of constitutional rights is usually justified under the “war on terror” meme, although government is finding increasingly diverse uses.
Last week, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen testified before a Senate committee that his agency had indeed used stingrays in tax-related criminal investigations, but only with the blessing of a judge. Koskinen said the stingray “can only be used with a court order…based on probable cause of a criminal activity.”
A “court order” is not the same as a warrant and carries a lower legal burden. Court orders are usually gained through an even more vague “pen register statute” that is routinely abused.
Most federal law enforcement offices are required to get a warrant, but some agencies such as the Secret Service have granted themselves the authority to use stingrays without a warrant. How this squares with the Congressional bill, should it succeed, will be interesting.
The stingray is used much more widely by state and local law enforcement, who procure the devices independent of federal government. Baltimore has used the devices 4,300 times since 2007. Most local agencies do not bother with the burden of getting a judicial warrant.
Police and prosecutors using stingrays have signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI and, incredibly, prosecutors “have agreed to drop cases rather than disclose information about the technology” – even in serious criminal cases.
This underscores a common thread in all of the federal, state, and local involvement in stingray technology—a concerted effort to maintain absolute secrecy. They have even carried out a scheme in which the U.S. Marshals Service seized documents about the use of stingrays from local police in order to keep them from the American Civil Liberties Union.
In attempting to justify the cloak of secrecy around a device that can so easily intrude on the constitutional rights of citizens, authority figures have stated a number of falsehoods.
IRS Commissioner Koskinen stated in testimony that “[stingray] does not allow you to overhear… voice communications.” Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Seth M. Stodder told a House subcommittee that the devices do not listen to phone calls or capture text messages.
However, new information has come out which demonstrates that stingrays can, in fact, intercept the content of voice and text communications. They can record numbers for incoming and outgoing calls, and can possibly use a phone as a bug by flashing its firmware.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California obtained Justice Department documents after a two-year struggle. Acknowledging that use of stingrays “is an issue of some controversy,” the DOJ goes on to provide guidelines for use and templates for submitting court requests for permission to use them.
We already knew that stingrays direct all nearby mobile devices to connect to them, which reveals their unique device ID as well as precise locations.
According to the documents: “If the cellular telephone is used to make or receive a call, the screen of the digital analyzer/cell site simulator/triggerfish would include the cellular telephone number (MIN), the call’s incoming or outgoing status, the telephone number dialed, the cellular telephone’s ESN, the date, time, and duration of the call, and the cell site number/sector (location of the cellular telephone when the call was connected).”
Furthermore, the devices “may be capable of intercepting the contents of communications and, therefore, such devices must be configured to disable the interception function, unless interceptions have been authorized by a Title III order.”
The documents go on to instruct agencies on how to avoid the prying eyes of those who would question the infringement on civil liberties. The fact that stingray surveillance capabilities go much farther than we were led to believe makes it even more critical to expose the abuse currently going on.