Police love them. They are called Stingrays—surveillance devices that can deceive a criminal suspect’s cell phone into revealing its location.
The ACLU has combined a list of 66 law enforcement agencies in 24 states and the District of Columbia that possess stingray devices.
Stingrays Trick Cells Phones into Revealing Location
According to a recent Reuters report, Stingrays, also known as “cell site simulators,” can mimic cell phone towers “in order to force cell phones in the area to transmit ‘pings’ back to the devices, enabling law enforcement to track a suspect’s phone and pinpoint its location.”
Use of Stingray Without Warrant Violates 4th Amendment
Thus far, two courts—one state, one federal—have suppressed evidence obtained by law enforcement’s use of the device. This past March a Maryland appellate court was the first court to rule that Stingray evidence had to be suppressed. More recently, a U.S. District Court judge in Manhattan ruled that the DEA’s use of a Stingray without a warrant to locate a drug suspect’s apartment violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Privacy advocacy groups, like the ACLU, have been highly critical of law enforcement’s use of these devices.
Constitutional Rights to Privacy Challenged in Digital Age
Speaking about U.S. District Judge William Pauley’s recent decision, ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler said in a statement that “this opinion strongly reinforces the strength of our constitutional privacy rights in the digital age.”
The decision, we’re sure, did not sit well with FBI Director James Comey who routinely boasts about his agency’s integrity, when, in reality, it is an agency that has very little respect for constitutional privacy rights of American citizens. Comey inherited, and has embraced, the longstanding practice of his agency secretly snooping around into the private lives of law-abiding citizens in this country.
In October 2014, Comey defended the use of Stingray technology, but only after the Charlotte Observer published a video as part of the newspaper’s investigation into the use of Stingrays by local police.
Scaring People into Submission
“It’s how we find killers, it’s how we find kidnappers, it’s how we find drug dealers, it’s how we find missing children, it’s how we find pedophiles,” Comey told media outlets in Charlotte in 2014. “It’s work you want us to be able to do.”
Comey conveniently failed to mention that law enforcement agencies also use the devices in secret and without court approval in violation of the rights of criminal suspects, as well as law-abiding citizens, guaranteed to all people under the U.S. Constitution.
Stingrays Used in Texas
The ACLU has compiled a list of states that use Stingray devices. Although law enforcement agencies shroud the use of cell site simulators in secrecy, the ACLU reports that local and state police in Texas use the surveillance tracking devices. At the federal level, besides the FBI, the following law enforcement agencies use Stingray devices: DEA, Secret Service, ICE, ATF, Marshals Service, and the IRS. Scarier still is the fact that the following military branches use the devices: U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard. Two intelligence-gathering agencies, NSA and U.S. Special Operations Command.
Fortunately, Judge Pauley ruled that law enforcement agencies, like the FBI and DEA, cannot use Stingrays without court approval; in other words, they must have a properly issued search warrant signed by a federal judge or magistrate.
Legislators Concerned Over Use of Cell Site Simulators
There is now increasing congressional concern about the use of cell site simulators. Democrats and Republicans alike have recently introduced legislation, such as F.A.I.R. (Fourth Amendment Integrity Restoration) Surveillance Act and the Stingray Privacy Act designed to reign in the secret, unbridled use of these surveillance devices by law enforcement agencies.
At least twelve states have similarly passed legislation designed to control the use of cell site simulators.
Attorney Wessler said that while it’s “hard to predict when Congress may able to get legislation moving, it certainly helps to have a respected federal judge explaining that the Fourth Amendment requires more oversight and more protections for people, and I think that could be a motivator for legislators.”
We find it unfortunate that our nation’s law enforcement agencies seem to intentionally stay one step ahead of the law, as well as, the constitutional demands set out in the Forth Amendment.
Law Enforcement Secretive About Technologies
Wessler explains the root of the technology/law enforcement problem:
“The challenge for a long time was the lack of information. There has been such an extraordinary and extreme level of secrecy around these technologies that legislators just had no idea that this was even in existence, much less that police in their state were using it frequently. As information has become more public, we’ve actually seen that legislation imposing reasonable controls, like a warrant requirement, has deep bipartisan support.”
FBI “Extremely Careless” in Disregard or Privacy Rights of Americans
FBI Director Comey recently told a congressional committee that State Department employees had been “extremely careless” in their handling of classified information. We think that Director Comey, and a host of other law enforcement agencies, have been “extremely careless” in their total disregard for the privacy rights of American citizens with the unconstitutional use of cell site simulators.