Xeno's strange news awards blog.
Florida police used a cell phone tracking device at least 200 times without a warrant because they conspired with the device manufacturer to keep its use a secret, according to the ACLU.
The stingray cell tracking device works by mimicking a real cell phone tower, tricking phones into connecting to it.
Through a recent motion for public access, the ACLU determined that at least one Florida police department never told judges about its use of the cell phone tracking device, known as a “stingray,” because the department signed a non-disclosure agreement with the stingray’s manufacturer to keep its use from being publicly known.
The manufacturer, which the ACLU said was likely a Florida-based company, also retained ownership of its stingrays and only let the department borrow them, further aiding in its secrecy. The stingray, also called a “cell tower simulator,” determines the location of a targeted cell phone by impersonating a cell tower, which tricks the targeted phone – and non-targeted cell phones in the same range – into transmitting its precise location and phone records to the stingray.
“When in use, stingrays sweep up information about innocent people and criminal suspects alike,” Nathan Freed Wessler, an ACLU attorney, reported.
The ACLU learned about the department’s use of the stingray through an ongoing court case entitled Florida v. Thomas, in which police used the device to track a stolen cell phone to the suspect’s apartment.
After forcing their way inside the apartment, the police conducted a search of the residence, found the stolen phone and arrested the suspect.
Yet the police never obtained a warrant for the search or for its use of the stingray.
“This was apparently because they had signed a non-disclosure agreement with the company that gave them the device,” Wessler wrote. “The police seem to have interpreted the agreement to bar them even from revealing their use of stingrays to judges, who we usually rely on to provide oversight of police investigations.”
“Potentially unconstitutional government surveillance on this scale should not remain hidden from the public just because a private corporation desires secrecy,” he added. “And it certainly should not be concealed from judges.”
And, according to the ACLU, other police departments are also using stingrays secretly in the same fashion, joining an ever growing list of government entities infringing upon the Fourth Amendment.
Last week it was revealed that officials in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan began working with local police to place surveillance cameras in every neighborhood.
From USA Today:
” The system, typically installed in a vehicle so it can be moved into any neighborhood, tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeding data to police. In some states, the devices are available to any local police department via state surveillance units. The federal government funds most of the purchases, via anti-terror grants. …
Many people aren’t aware that a smartphone is an adept location-tracking device. It’s constantly sending signals to nearby cell towers, even when it’s not being used. And wireless carriers store data about your device, from where it’s been to whom you’ve called and texted, some of it for years. …
The Stingray can grab some data from cellphones in real time and without going through the wireless service providers involved. …
The government has the ability to track cellphones using the portable device pictured above called the Stingray — it was recently revealed in a criminal case in Arizona, but the government doesn’t want anyone to know how it works. When the judge in the case asked for more information about the Stingray in order to determine if its use requires a search warrant, the government filed a memo basically arguing both ways: it said Stingray use generally doesn’t require a warrant, but concedes that one was required in this specific instance — a huge concession that could cost them the case, just so the Stingray’s design and functionality remain a secret.
Although the government’s lawyers are willing to tie themselves in knots trying to conceal the Stingray, we do have some information on how it works: experts told the WSJ that it mimics an actual cell tower pinging for a specific device, and the data can be used to triangulate a phone’s location. It can be concealed in the back of a van and measure the distance to any type of cell phone from multiple locations — circles drawn from each point will intersect within 100 meters of the phone’s location. Our FBI contact told us that tracking a cellphone normally requires a wireless provider’s cooperation, which could take weeks to obtain — the Stingray simplifies investigations because cell towers aren’t needed. We’ll see what happens — if it comes down to keeping the Stingray a secret or allowing law enforcement to track anyone they want without a warrant, we suppose we prefer the first.
According to Wired:
The government maintains that the stingrays don’t violate Fourth Amendment rights, since Americans don’t have a legitimate expectation of privacy for data sent from their mobile phones and other wireless devices to a cell tower.
… That’s pretty questionable. [From reading the ] 4th Amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
It would seem that using such a device to locate a person in their house without a warrant seems to clearly violate the text of the Amendment. …