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What Is the Big Secret Surrounding Stingray Surveillance?



Given the amount of mobile phone traffic that cell phone towers transmit, it is no wonder law enforcement agencies target these devices as a rich source of data to aid their investigations. Standard procedure involves getting a court order to obtain phone records from a wireless carrier. When authorities cannot or do not want to go that route, they can set up a simulated cell phone tower—often called a stingray—that surreptitiously gathers information from the suspects in question as well as any other mobile device in the area.

These simulated cell sites—which collect international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI), location and other data from mobile phones connecting to them—have become a source of controversy for a number of reasons. National and local law enforcement agencies closely guard details about the technology’s use, with much of what is known about stingrays revealed through court documents and other paperwork made public via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

One such document recently revealed that the Baltimore Police Department has used a cell site simulator 4,300 times since 2007 and signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI that instructed prosecutors to drop cases rather than reveal the department’s use of the stingray. Other records indicate law enforcement agencies have used the technology hundreds of times without a search warrant, instead relying on a much more generic court order known as a pen register and trap and trace order. Last year Harris Corp., the Melbourne, Fla., company that makes the majority of cell site simulators, went so far as to petition the Federal Communications Commission to block a FOIA request for user manuals for some of the company’s products.

The secretive nature of stingray use has begun to backfire on law enforcement, however, with states beginning to pass laws that require police to obtain a warrant before they can set up a fake cell phone tower for surveillance. Virginia, Minnesota, Utah and Washington State now have laws regulating stingray use, with California and Texas considering similar measures. Proposed federal legislation to prevent the government from tracking people’s cell phone or GPS location without a warrant could also include stingray technology.

Scientific American recently spoke with Brian Owsley, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law, about the legal issues and privacy implications surrounding the use of a stingray to indiscriminately collect mobile phone data. Given the invasive nature of the technology and scarcity of laws governing its use, Owsley, a former U.S. magistrate judge in Texas, says the lack of reliable information documenting the technology’s use is particularly troubling.

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