Evidencing extreme overuse of controversial cell site simulator technology, Annapolis police deployed Stingray for the all-important purpose of catching a thief who’d stolen $50 … in chicken wings.
Stingray devices mimic cell towers, pinging phones in the area until they connect with it, instead of an actual tower. This allows whoever deploys it to collect not only metadata, but as was recently revealed, the content of voice and text communications. Even worse, Stingray cannot specifically target one subject’s phone — so, when in use, the content of an entire area’s electronic devices will also be collected.
Though legally that extraneous information must be discarded, the government’s track record in frivolous surveillance leaves that legal restraint quite an open question, if not downright unlikely. Indeed, what we know about Stingray technology is the result of years of legal battles between privacy advocates and a government so secretive, police and prosecutors sign non-disclosure agreements in order to use it.
Prosecutors, even in serious criminal cases, astonishingly “have agreed to drop cases rather than disclose information about the technology.” This practice has done nothing to quell suspicions Stingray might be collecting more information than is understood — or that it may be used more frequently than strictures of law allow.
Interestingly, pertaining to the use of Stingray to catch a $50 chicken-wing thief in Annapolis, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in March deemed the warrantless use of cell-site simulators a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Though it’s entirely possible a warrant was obtained in this instance, the secrecy surrounding the case again leaves room for doubt.
To understand why such a ruling would be essential, in April 2015 an alarming report from a Baltimore detective revealed the department had used Stingray technology some 4,300 times over an eight-year period. And that was one department — in a single city.
Edward Snowden’s epiphanic disclosures of the National Security Agency’s massive, multifaceted dragnet domestic surveillance program had been alarming enough in its own right. Stingray puts similar technological capabilities in the hands of notoriously inept local police departments, whose overall record of breaking their own use-of-force policy makes their ability to adhere to legal restrictions concerning surveillance a matter for serious consideration.
Worse still, Stingray has an upgraded version: Hailstorm.
Hailstorm “can identify phones from a 360-degree antenna from about a city block away in distance,” explained Baltimore Police Det. Emmanuel Cabreja in April last year.
Despite journalists’ and advocates’ best efforts to obtain information on Stingray and Hailstorm through Freedom of Information Act requests, precious little has been disclosed.
Considering the gravity of potential consequences for the general public’s personal information being sucked into a local police dragnet surveillance operation, Annapolis police’ decision to deploy Stingray to nab a chicken-wing crook leaves little doubt police will continue to misuse the powerful technology.
“Just because it’s easier in 2016 for law enforcement to track information and learn intimate details about our lives, it doesn’t mean those details are somehow less worthy of Constitutional protection.”
Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should.