FBI just let another criminal walk rather than give details of their cell phone spying system “Stingray” — a system is used by local police, shockingly to locate and spy on criminal suspects all over the United States. However, they would apparently rather let suspects go free than reveal in court the details of the high tech tracker.
This device, called a “Stingray,” tricks cell phones into revealing their locations. Closely guarded details about how police Stingrays operate have been threatened this week by a judge’s court order.
The federal government has been using these devices since at least 1995.
Judge Patrick H. NeMoyer in Buffalo, New York, described a 2012 deal between the FBI and the Erie County Sheriff’s Office in his court order Tuesday. The judge, who reviewed the deal, said the FBI instructed the police to drop criminal charges instead of revealing “any information concerning the cell site simulator or its use.”
Erie police had long tried to keep that contract secret, but the judge rejected that idea and ordered that details of the Stingrays be made public.
“If that is not an instruction that affects the public, nothing is,” NeMoyer wrote.
The judge’s order also noted that Erie police had used Stingrays to track down several criminal suspects, a suicidal person and four missing people, including an 87-year-old with dementia.
Police spokesman Scott Zylka said they’re now working with the FBI to appeal the judge’s decision and keep the FBI agreement secret.
ACLU is demanding details about Stingray use under public records laws.
Few people know Stingrays even exist — or that federal agents and police across the country are increasingly using them to arrest people. It’s a small device that mimics a cell phone tower, duping nearby cell phones into connecting to it rather than a real phone company tower.
There’s a growing privacy concern because while police use the Stingrays to track down an individual, they can potentially grab text messages and phone call data on thousands of innocent people.
In November, we learned that federal agents regularly fly planes nationwide that spy on Americans’ phone calls. We also know police in at least 20 states use Stingrays, according to public records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.
But everything else is a mystery because police agencies have non-disclosure agreements with the maker of Stingrays: the Harris Corporation based in Melbourne, Florida. They also have similar hush-hush contracts with the FBI.
There have been several examples of prosecutors dropping charges to keep quiet about Stingrays. Late last year, Tallahassee police gave a sweet plea deal to a pot dealer who robbed someone with a BB gun. A felony charge with a four-year prison sentence became a misdemeanor with six-months’ probation because his defense attorney discovered police used a Stingray to locate him.
Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney with the pro-privacy Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Tuesday’s court order was the first time it became clear that the use of Stingrays is a nationwide tactic.
“We’ve long suspected that’s the policy, but now we know,” he said. “It’s crazy on a billion legal levels.”
The lead ACLU attorney on this case, Mariko Hirose, described Stingrays as military grade equipment that has no place being used on unsuspecting American citizens. She also said that the FBI’s tactic to stay quiet about Stingrays makes little sense. Erie County spent more than 50,000 to buy two Stingray devices and related training and equipment.
“Why are municipalities spending so much money when they might have to drop the charges in the name of secrecy?” she asked.
All of this raises the interesting question of won’t all criminal lawyers now demand Stingray records on their client as a matter of course?
The ACLU put out a pamphlet for defense attorneys for exactly this reason. It seems that if the authorities are obtaining their evidence illegally, then it should be challenged.
Another very interesting detail about StingRays also recently came to light. Stingrays make it temporarily impossible for anyone nearby to make a cell phone call. “Its use has the potential to intermittently disrupt cellular service to a small fraction of Sprint’s wireless customers within its immediate vicinity,” FBI Special Agent Michael Scimeca wrote in his explanation about the StingRay’s capability to a judge.
“Any potential service disruption will be brief and minimized by reasonably limiting the scope and duration of the use of the Mobile Equipment.” Until now, authorities have maintained that the StingRay doesn’t intercept 911 emergency calls.
Yet this disclosure raises the notion that the StingRay prohibits other emergency calls in favor of investigations ranging from murder to minor theft. Additionally, the surveillance device also jams 3G and 4G networks. “Depending on how long the jamming is taking place, there’s going to be disruption,” ACLU chief technologist Chris Soghoian told Wired magazine. “When your phone goes down to 2G, your data just goes to hell. So at the very least you will have disruption of Internet connectivity. And if and when the phones are using the StingRay as their only tower, there will likely be an inability to receive or make calls.”