Washington, D.C. - The government is making a seemingly concerted effort to obscure from public view exactly how cell phone signal interceptors, known as “Stingray” devices, are being secretly utilized by law enforcement.
Stingray devices, generically known as international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catchers, are designed to emit a signal that is stronger than nearby cell phone towers in order to force phones in the vicinity to connect to them. Once connected, all call records, location data, text messages and metadata are accessible to those in control of the device.
This technology was originally developed for anti-terrorism operations by Harris Corporation, but has reportedly been employed by police departments across the U.S. for use in standard police work.
Thus far Harris Corporation, the FBI and police all refuse to discuss the technology, or detail the extent of the devices capability. Additionally, Harris Corporation requires police departments to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that explicitly prohibits the law enforcement agencies from telling anyone, including other government bodies, about their use of the secretive equipment.
According to Wired, a copy of an NDA obtained from a police department in Tucson, Arizona, which was signed in 2010, requires the agency to notify Harris any time journalists or anyone else files a public records request to obtain information about their use of the tools and also states that the police department will “assist” Harris in deciding what information to release.
A letter sent from the FBI to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) in 2012 details the manner in which the feds would like the BCA to handle Freedom of Information Act requests.
"The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will immediately notify the FBI of any such request telephonically and in writing in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to seek to prevent disclosure through appropriate channels."
Hanni Fakhoury, a lawyer with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, said,
“It’s remarkable to see collusion by state and federal agencies to undermine public records requests, which are clearly aimed at keeping the public in the dark about the use of Stingray technology.”
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“The notion that the federal government would work to actively block disclosure of records seems clearly to have a chilling effect on obtaining information about this controversial surveillance tool.”
The feds have gone so far as to send U.S. Marshals to a Florida police station to seize documents detailing the program’s technology in an effort to keep information about the device secret. In that case, the ACLU filed a request for public records detailing Stingray use in a case investigated by Sarasota detectives, and had an appointment to review the records on the same day they were grabbed by the Marshals Service, according to the Daily Caller.
“We’ve seen our fair share of federal government attempts to keep records about stingrays secret, but we’ve never seen an actual physical raid on state records in order to conceal them from public view,” the ACLU wrote in a blog post following the incident.
An investigation by two U.S. Senators, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, into the use of Stingrays, has revealed the FBI rarely obtains search warrants when using the device in public, prompting them to send a letter to Homeland Security director Jeh Johnson to express their grave concerns.
When using this device the FBI is required to get a search warrant, except in rare circumstances, yet it was revealed there are a large number of exemptions that are being used by the feds to skirt search warrant requirements.
The letter from the senator’s reads in part,
“We have concerns about the scope of the exceptions. Specifically, we are concerned about whether the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have adequately considered the privacy interests of other individuals who are not the targets of the interception, but whose information is nevertheless being collected when these devices are being used.
Across all DOJ and DHS entities, what protections exist to safeguard the privacy interests of individuals who are not the targets of interception, but whose information is nevertheless being collected by cell-site simulators?”
Despite government assurances that these devices are only being used for “terrorism” or “high-profile” crime cases, the evidence revealed thus far tends to show a wholly different reality.
That reality is that it’s being used to perpetuate an unjust drug war that criminalizes and locks up millions of non-violent U.S. citizens, all the while gaming our constitutional protections and legal system.
What the evidence shows us is that these devices are being used to listen in on phone calls of political activists and protestors, as revealed by Anonymous at the Eric Garner rallies in Chicago.
Perhaps in police state USA working for systemic change and social justice makes you a “terrorist.”
Jay Syrmopoulos is an investigative journalist, freethinker, researcher, and ardent opponent of authoritarianism. He is currently a graduate student at University of Denver pursuing a masters in Global Affairs. Jay's work has previously been published on BenSwann.com and WeAreChange.org. You can follow him on Twitter @sirmetropolis, on Facebook at Sir Metropolis and now on tsu.