While the mass surveillance scandal surrounding the NSA and its various partners has continued to command national headlines, sparking debate and quiet mumblings about the pervasive extent of spying, less attention has been paid to the equally controversial but less known use of mass surveillance data sweeps by local law enforcement across the country.
In part, this is due to restricted information about the extent of this surveillance activity.
According to the Associated Press, the Obama Administration has been actively advising police departments to refuse disclosure about certain cell phone surveillance technologies, including the widely used “StingRay” device, even in routine state records requests.
Evidently, the StingRay technology allows law enforcement to “trick” cell devices into sharing identifying personal and location data with them that would ordinary be sent to communications companies and require request procedures.
Instead, police are bypassing company assistance and collecting unique information on suspects, persons of interests, and – as the AP reports – they can even “sweep up basic cellphone data from entire neighborhoods,” all without any court orders or oversight.
According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC):
A StingRay is a device that can triangulate the source of a cellular signal by acting “like a fake cell phone tower” and measuring the signal strength of an identified device from several locations. With StingRays and other similar “cell site simulator” technologies, Government investigators and private individuals can locate, interfere with, and even intercept communications from cell phones and other wireless devices. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) has used such cell site simulator technology to track and locate phones and users since at least 1995.
Upon orders from up the food chain, local authorities are flat out refusing to share information about how the device itself works and/or operates.
That’s due in large part to secrecy institutionalized by agreements between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and manufacturers, such as Harris Corp.
In the Harris Corporation’s FCC authorization, which regulates wireless equipment capable of interfering with other communications, is an odd requirement mandating that police using the Stingray and other similar technologies “coordinate with the FBI” before acquiring and operating the equipment.
In short, the local law enforcement entanglement with the feds has produced often extreme secrecy and contributed to a public almost wholly ignorant about the extent of surveillance taking place in modern society.
Many police departments, under pressure from the FBI and Obama Administration, have refused to give information about StingRay – even in court testimony – while public information releases regarding this surveillance have thus far been heavily redacted.
In their special report for the Associated Press, authors Jack Gillum and Eileen Sullivan wrote:
Local police agencies have been denying access to records about this surveillance equipment under state public records laws. Agencies in San Diego, Chicago and Oakland County, Michigan, for instance, declined to tell the AP what devices they purchased, how much they cost and with whom they shared information. San Diego police released a heavily censored purchasing document. Oakland officials said police-secrecy exemptions and attorney-client privilege keep their hands tied. It was unclear whether the Obama administration interfered in the AP requests.
“It’s troubling to think the FBI can just trump the state’s open records law,” said Ginger McCall, director of the open government project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. McCall suspects the surveillance would not pass constitutional muster.
“The vast amount of information it sweeps in is totally irrelevant to the investigation,” she said.
While many departments have been obediently tight-lipped about the use and operation of StingRay technology, some information has come out.
The ACLU reported on a Florida case in which a law enforcement officer testified that “he ‘quite literally stood in front of every door and window’ with his Stingray to track the phones inside a large apartment complex.” The signal tracking is used to gather often precise information about the location of the people inside.
Further, several hundred pages of information about “Stingray” and its cell tower-simulator counterparts “Triggerfish” and “Digital Analyzers” have come to light as the result of an EPIC lawsuit against the FBI. This heavily redacted information [PDF link] acknowledges an FBI training program in “cell site simulator devices” and a bit about their legal classification as “pen register” devices (which can record/decode identifying information about transmitted “dialing, routing, addressing or signalling information” — p. 61).
FBI officials have, for their part, essentially argued that the use of the technology must remain secret for reasons of national security.
One such FBI special agent, Bradley Morrison, gave an affidavit supporting the suppression of information in an Arizona case, claiming that revelations about the surveillance technology would keep them from stopping the bad guys.
Morrison testified that public disclosure would “result in the FBI’s inability to protect the public from terrorism and other criminal activity because through public disclosures, this technology has been rendered essentially useless for future investigations.”
Both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) have criticized the prima facie violations of Constitutional rights and pushed for release of information about this level of surveillance through lawsuits and challenges.
An ACLU case forced the release of some key information on the use of StingRay in Florida only last week, even as various law enforcement authorities attempted to keep information secret. The ACLU celebrated the unsealing of THIS transcript which the FBI had attempted to keep secret.
Just one small excerpt of that transcript, from p. 2, gives some food for thought about the state of privacy in 2014:
A “In essence, we emulate a cellphone tower. So just as the phone was registered with the real Verizon tower, we emulate a tower; we force that handset to register with us. We identify that we have the correct handset and then we’re able to, by just merely direction finding on the signal emanating from that handset –– we’ re able to determine a location.”
Q “And when you say the handset you’re referring to the cellphone that you’re attempting to locate through the use of basically forcing that cellphone to come to your equipment rather than going to a tower that it normally would?”
A “That is correct.”
A “Using portable equipment we were able to actually basically stand at every door and every window in that complex and determine, with relative certainty you know, the particular area of the apartment that the handset was emanating from.”
A fast-draining cell phone battery can be a dead giveaway to the use of this tracking and imitating technology.
Sounds like some dystopic Orwellian Hollywood thriller plot, but instead, this is modern day police investigation reality here in the good ‘ole U.S. of A.
…and people still argue that we have privacy in this country.